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Almost Famous [Review Re-View] (2000)

Released September 13, 2000:

Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical 70s rock opus is like a gigantic hug. It’s warm, engrossing, feel good, and leaves you with a smile wishing for more. Almost Famous may be the best movie going experience of the year. You likely won’t have a better time from a movie.

Fresh-faced newcomer Patrick Fugit plays the 15-year-old version of Crowe who is a budding writer for Rolling Stone. He’s tapped to tour and send in a story on the fictional band Stillwater fronted by singer Jason Lee and guitarist Billy Crudup. Stillwater is everything the typical early 70s rock band was and should be: long hair, tight pants, and continuous inner turmoil and squabbling. Little Fugit captures all of this with wide-eyed exploration as he stretches away from his overprotective mother played by the lovely Frances McDormand. Phillip Seymour Hoffman also pops in to do a brilliant portrayal of music critic Lester Bangs. Kate Hudson shines in a break-out performance as a “band-aid” to Stillwater; which is an uncertain mix of naive groupie and musical muse. She’s together with fellow “band-aids” Anna Paquin and Faruiza Balk.

The writing of Almost Famous is textured and fully satisfying. The turns it takes down the road are expert and you know you are in the hands of a true artist. Crowe’s direction again makes leaps and bounds in improvement with every new feature. He and his wife wrote all of the songs the fictional band performs and it sounds like, to my ears, he had a few more job offerings he could have easily been suited for.

The acting is phenomenal with every cast member contributing nicely to the fold. Crudup is the anchor, Hudson is the gleaming star, Fugit is the tender surprise, Lee is the emotional lightening rod, and Frances is the mother that we all would love to have deep down inside. She is at the level that is most difficult for a parent: she must begin to let go so they live their own life, yet she’s raised him from harm since he could spew mashed carrots. Surely, if the world had justice Frances will be winning her second Oscar.

Almost Famous is a breathing work that borderlines perfection. It’s a great time to be had just sitting and experiencing what the movie has to offer.

Nate’s Grade: A

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

Cameron Crowe was a filmmaker on a hit streak from his debut as a screenwriter (Fast Times and Ridgemont High), to his debut as a writer/director (Say Anything) and throughout the 1990s, culminating in his greatest achievement, the Oscar-winning and semi-autobiographical Almost Famous in 2000. This is without question the pinnacle of Crowe’s career and he deservedly won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for a movie that feels so assuredly magical, textured, and lived-in, an authentic trip down one’s memory that doesn’t lose itself to empty nostalgia but reminds the viewer about the genuine appeal and connection of art, the ramshackle families it can build, and a shifting sense of self under construction that can provide armor and security. And strangely enough it was all dramatically downhill for there for the former hitmaker. Crowe followed up with 2001’s Vanilla Sky, a messy remake of a Spanish sci-fi head-scratcher, and then a slew of movies about bland, melancholy dudes going home to restart their cratering personal lives with the help of a good, patient woman, from 2005’s Elizabethtown, to 2011’s We Bought a Zoo, to 2015’s Aloha (infamously known as the film where Emma Stone plays a woman of Chinese descent). A “Cameron Crowe film” stopped becoming something you looked forward to, and then they stopped even happening. The man who made big studio comedies with big heart had seemed to lose his infallible touch. His last industry credit is creating the one-season Showtime TV series Roadies, following the lives of its subjects on a tour, and it felt clearly like he’s trying to tap back into his own past success. Still, if your career high point is Almost Famous, then it’s a mighty fine pinnacle that many would kill to have as their finest hurrah. It was even turned into a theatrical musical in Britain in 2019.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve revisited Almost Famous and in doing so for this twenty-year review I’ve now also watched the movie for the first time, so to speak. I didn’t realize I had found myself the 160-minute director’s cut (labeled “The Bootleg Cut”). I had always intended to watch this extended edition but never got around to it, and now having done so, I can’t imagine another version that better portrays the highs and lows of this story. The extra (approximately) 40 minutes are mostly extended scenes, conversations that carry on a little longer, pauses that feel more resonant, stories that have more shape, and an epic coming-of-age script set amidst the wonderful landscape of late 70s rock and roll music that now feels even more wonderfully alive. If you were a fan of the 122-minute theatrical version, I have to imagine you’ll be delighted by even more time spent in the company of these characters and inside this amiable world.

Crowe’s screenplay pools from his own personal experiences as a young reporter for Rolling Stone who traveled with The Allman Brothers Band as well as several famous anecdotes with real-life rock bands. The turbulent airplane that motivates conscious-clearing confessions was from Alice Cooper’s band with Crowe onboard. The guitarist almost being electrocuted onstage was from KISS. The journalist being pulled into the offstage pre-show huddle happened to Crowe by Pearl Jam. The “I am a golden god” line is taken from Robert Plant yelling on a hotel balcony. Lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) is based on Glenn Fry of The Eagles, and the illustrious Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) is an amalgamation of multiple women. But far from just feeling like a muddled recounting of hazy personal stories, Crowe has done something rare and has melded his own experiences, and the rumors and legends of rock and roll, and transformed them into a movie that is universal, accessible, and brimming with gentle wisdom and hard-won joy. It’s both optimistic and pessimistic, generously character-based but also clearly goal-oriented in William’s (Patrick Fugit) quest to get his long-delayed interview and to write his breakthrough article. It’s an easy movie to fall in love with because Crowe has so expertly put in all the care needed for you to simply immerse yourself in this world and become awash in feeling.

It’s a canvas of insecure people using one another for personal gain. Legendary music critic Lester Bangs (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) warns young William that rock stars are not to be trusted; they only want to make him feel special so they’ll get a good article in return. The Sweetwater band is wary of William and the power he wields, as well as his discretion with what he sees and experiences with them on the road. Russell may or may not be in love with Penny Lane and desires her comfort, but he’s also a perpetual one-foot-out-the-door kind of guy, striking up repeated threats to abandon the band and strike out on a solo career. Penny Lane is so obviously in love with Russell but committed relationships might run afoul of her free spirit sensibilities and her wish to be able to blow up her life and start over at a moment’s notice, channeling a new fantasy life. Lead singer Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee) is distrustful of anyone that might sabotage the band and his ascent. He feels inferior to Russell’s talent. Manager Dick Roswell (Noah Taylor) wants to prove himself capable in direct competition with the much more connected and professional manager, Dennis Hope (Jimmy Fallon). The “band-aid” ladies desire proximity to fame, as well as indirectly serving as muses for the music they love. The band just “wants to look cool.” There’s so much broiling interpersonal conflict colliding, and that’s not even accounting for William’s intense, tenacious overly protective mother (Frances McDormand) who has sheltered him for his life and worries herself sick. All of these people have vibrant interior lives and are trying to project a best-case version of themselves. The illusion of rock and roll, media, and objectivity, personal and professional, eventually fades.

The performances were career-defining for many of the actors involved, two of whom were nominated for Oscars (McDormand and Hudson), but I want to first talk about Hoffman’s performance because, even though it is brief, I consider it one of his best in a storied career of great performances. Lester’s a cynic who believes rock and roll has long died from commercialization and is populated with phonies eager to taste the sweet life by any means. He’s dubious about William’s aims but becomes a trusted ally and pillar of support during his moments of doubt. He’s been where William has, swooned by interview subjects to diffuse his objectivity (“Friendship is the booze they feed you”). I think he sees himself in William and his desire to write about the industry he loves. Their final exchange is, quite simply, some of the finest writing that has ever existed in cinema. Lester connects with William over their shared “uncool” status, culminating in his greatest advice: “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.” Hoffman starts his performance with breakneck cynicism and then by the end he’s become one of the most genuine believers in the power of human connection. The fact that Hoffman was deadly sick with the flu throughout his shooting days only makes his performance even more astonishing. While the rock and roll shenanigans prove fun, the realest relationship for me with Almost Famous was between these two “uncool” guys bonding.

Crudup (Watchmen) and Hudson (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days) are so inexorably connected in their performances because their relationship forms one of the movie’s most heartfelt and heart-breaking storylines. Penny Lane is such an instantly transcendent character, drawing others into her orbit and lifting up the orphans of this world into a new family. She’s more than a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (a term first coined in response to Crowe’s film, Elizabethtown); in fact, she’s never really manic in behavior. She wears heavy fur coats, conducts herself like the ringleader of a circus, and ensnares hearts and minds. She envisions herself as a muse, a lover of music, a spiritual guide for musicians to reach new heights, and definitely not just some “groupie.” However, she can’t help but circlle Russell and go against all her better instincts of playing it safe. Her reaction to hearing the news that Russell and the band “sold her” in a card game for beer is a beautifully underplayed moment for Hudson. Penny takes in the hard news, not wanting her carefree veneer to crack, then slightly dabs at a tear rolling down her cheek, adding with a crack of bemusement, “What kind of beer?” It’s so crushing in how underplayed the moment comes across, but you can tell Penny has been deeply wounded, things have gotten too real, and inside she’s rolling (“I always tell the girls, never take it seriously, if ya never take it seriously, ya never get hurt, ya never get hurt, ya always have fun, and if you ever get lonely, just go to the record store and visit your friends.”). Hudson makes it inevitable that you will fall in love with Penny Lane just as rapidly as William. It’s a shame Hudson has been castigated to disposable rom-com junk for much of her career since breaking out.

Likewise, Crudup’s performance has much more self-awareness than anyone else, even when he’s flailing. He senses he’s not meeting his potential and that can cover his love life as well. He’s married but doesn’t seem too committed to maintaining those boundaries. He enjoys the fame and adulation of being a rock musician but wants more. At the same time, he desires truth, real-ness, and after being called out for his selfish stances, Russell flees the confines of the hotel with William and mingles with the “real people” at a house party. It’s a great little aside for the movie and one of the funnier sequences especially as William is forced into playing keeper. The sequence is a fun escape but it’s also emblematic of the contradiction of Russell as a character. He desires truth but cannot be fully honest with himself, his desires, and his own failings. Crudup is laid back and disarming as he opens up to Russell while still admonishing himself for doing so. By the end, the movie isn’t about William getting the girl, as my friend I saw the film with had hoped, but it’s about William getting his long-elusive interview, and by the end they’re both a little wiser, a little more world-weary, and the ending comes down to these two men and their shared love, not for Penny Lane, but for music itself and what it means to them. Originally Brad Pitt and Sarah Polley were set to play the roles of Russell and Penny Lane, and I cannot imagine both actors being able to out-perform who eventually filled these roles.

Fugit (Gone Girl) was the avatar for the audience and is far more reactionary, taking in the rock and roll lifestyle with so many strange and amusing people. We’re meant to be seduced like he is, and when he hits a personal high, we feel the same elation, like his first night as a journalist when he’s practically dancing back to his mother’s car. That entire plight of William trying to get into the Black Sabbath concert is a supremely written scene how it unfolds. Crowe spends the first 15 minutes of the movie to establish key family drama for William, including the fact that his college professor mother has accelerated his academics and lied about his age. He’s really two years younger than his peers, and I wondered why even include this aspect into the movie. You could readily tell the same story with a 17-year-old William as you could a 15-year-old William. Then I realized that this opening establishes William as always feeling out of place, of trying to catch up to an adulthood he might not be prepared for, and for having to cover an insecurity over his own identity. He’s looking to remake himself just as much as Penny Lane and the Stillwater musicians. Fugit feels like a young discovery without ever getting big moments to steal attention. His performance anchors the film while also being able to be invisible, our eyes and ears into this rarefied realm. I’m a little surprised he didn’t have as big a career as he deserved after Almost Famous, mostly sticking with quirky indie ensembles (Saved!, Wristcutters). He did play as Owen in the deeply polarizing Last of Us Part II video game, a fact might just set off more than a few readers into rage spirals.

Almost Famous is the kind of movie that has so much going on yet never strays far from its artistic aims, instead taking time to better flesh out re-creating this late 70s showbiz world and the supporting characters. Even a joke character like Fairuza Balk’s “band-aid #3” part gets to have a moment to shine, like when she answers a phone call from William’s mother. She of course blurts out something she shouldn’t, confirming the drug-fueled atmosphere of the mother’s alarmist fears, but then she realizes her miscue and corrects herself. Balk’s character (Sapphire) congratulates the mother on raising William to be a very respectful and good child, lamenting how rare such a thing is becoming, and relating some of her own family experiences. Then, as a comic capper, she ends the call by saying, “Oh, and this is the maid,” and hangs up. A small moment like that serves a plot purpose, amplifying the worry of William’s mother, but it can also be an opportunity for a small character to take the spotlight to make an impression. That is the gorgeous result of Crowe’s writing, that every scene has multiple levels going on, all connected to character and theme.

This is such a bounty of a movie ether at 122 minutes or 160 minutes. It’s an affectionate, humane tale that draws you in with its warmth and genial insights. In my original review, I compared Almost Famous to receiving a hug and, twenty years later, that’s exactly the same kind of feeling I got watching. I was smiling, I was laughing, and I felt nourished by Crowe’s creative opus. It’s a special movie and one that is exactly of its time but also timeless. You can pop this film on again and drift away, and that’s the transporting power of storytelling, acting, and directing all working harmoniously in sync to create a movie that feels just as satisfying as it did in 2000. My original review didn’t go into many specifics, and was a little too overblown about McDormand’s performance, but even at 18 years old, seeing this movie early as part of a college orientation with new friends in my life, I got the big things right. This movie sings.

Re-View Grade: A

Gladiator (2000) [Review Re-View]

Originally released May 5, 2000:

Director Ridley Scott has given the world of cinema some of its most unforgettable visual experiences. But can Scott breath new life into a genre whose heyday was when a badly dubbed Steve Reeves oiled his chest and wrestled loincloth-clad extras in the 1950s?

The year is roughly 180 AD and Rome is just finishing up its long-standing assault on anything that moves in the European continent. General Maximus (Russell Crowe) merely wants to retire back to his loving family and get away from the doom and war that has plagued his life. This is made all the more difficult when the ailing Emperor bypasses his treacherous son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) and decides to crown Maximus as the Defender of Rome. Because of this Commodus rises to power through bloody circumstances and has Maximus assigned to execution and his family crucified. You’d think crucifixion would be so passé by now. Maximus escapes only to be sold into slavery and bought by a dirt-run gladiator training school. As he advances up the chain and learns the tricks of the primal sport he seeks but vengeance for his fallen family.

Gladiator is an absorbing and sweeping spectacle of carnage and first-rate entertainment. The action is swift and ruthlessly visceral. The first movie in a long time to literally have me poised on the edge of my seat. The blood spills in the gallons and life and limb go flying enough your theater owner may consider setting down a tarp.

What Gladiator doesn’t sacrifice to the muscle of effects and action is storytelling. Are you listening George Lucas? Gladiator may unleash the beast when the rousing action is loose, but this is coupled with compelling drama and complex characters. Phoenix may at first seem like a snotty brat with an unhealthy eye for his sister (Connie Nielsen), but the further Gladiator continues the more you see in his eyes the troubled youth who just wants the love of his father that was never bestowed to him. Maximus is a devoted family man who regularly kisses clay statues of his family while away, and must ceremoniously dust himself with the earth before any battle.

The acting matches every sword blow and chariot race toe-for-toe. Russell Crowe marks a first-rate staple of heroism. Every calculating glare he exhibits shows the compassion and ferocity of this warrior. He becomes a rare breed – an action hero who can think and actually act. Oliver Reed, in what sadly was his last role, turns in a splendid and charismatic turn as the head of the gladiator school of Fine Arts and Carnage. Mysteriously everyone carries a British accent closer to them then a toga two sizes too small. Even Crowe who is nicknamed “The Spaniard” speaks like he walked out of Masterpiece Theater.

The effects and visuals are a sumptuous feast. The aerial shots of Rome and the Coliseum are simply breath taking. Gladiator rivals American Beauty for the most rose petals used in a movie, except in this one they don’t shoot out of Mena Suvari’s breasts.

Ridley Scott’s track record may be hit or miss but Gladiator is definitely one sorely not to be missed.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

As Russell Crowe famously barked, “Are you not entertained?’ It was hard to argue in 2000 and it still holds true to this day. Gladiator was a big-budget throwback to the swords-and-sandals epics of old Hollywood. It was a box-office hit, made Crowe a star, and won five Academy Awards including Best Picture. My own elderly grandmother loved it so much that she saw it three times in a theater that summer, which was practically unheard of in her later years (she also, inexplicably, loved the 1999 Mummy movie). It was a millennial DVD staple. I can recall everyone on my freshman dorm hall owning it and hearing it on regular rotation. As studio projects were getting bigger with more reliance on CGI, Gladiator felt like a refreshing reminder on how powerful old stories can be with some modern-day polish. Re-watching Gladiator twenty years later, it still resonates thanks to its tried-and-true formula of underdog vengeance.

We all love a good story where we follow a wronged party seek to right those wrongs, plus we all love a good underdog tale, and given the pomp and circumstance of the gladiatorial arena, it’s easy to see how this movie was engineered to be a success from the page. This isn’t a particularly new story. Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus mined the same territory with an even bigger scope, both in politics and in war, and there have been many movies covering the same history around the rise of Commodus, like 1964’s The Fall of the Roman Empire and The Two Gladiators. We’ve seen this kind of story before even in this setting but that doesn’t matter. The familiarity with a story isn’t a hindrance if the filmmakers take their story seriously and make an audience care about its characters. It all comes down to execution. As long as the filmmakers don’t get complacent and take that formula familiarity for granted, old stories can have the same power they had for decades because, deep down, cooked in their structure, they just work.

Gladiator gives us everything we need to know by the conclusion of its first act, introducing us to Maximus, showing his leadership and loyalty, giving us the strained father-son relationship with Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, the expectations of the son of his ascendancy, the regrets of the father and hope for a return to a Republic, the reluctance of Maximus to be more than a general of Rome, and finally after the murder of the old emperor, a decisive choice for Maximus that challenges his morals and responsibility. From there, screenwriters David Franzoni (Amistad), John Logan (The Aviator), and William Nicholson (Les Miserables) put our hero and villain on parallel tracks heading for a collision. Maximus rises through the ranks of gladiators and builds a name for himself, getting called to the major leagues of bloodsport, and Commodus schemes to have his old enemy killed with increasingly dangerous trials in the Coliseum. It’s a natural progression and escalation, which makes the storytelling satisfying as it carries on. Gladiator never had a finished script when they began filming, which has become more common with big budget tentpoles with daunting release dates and rarely does this work out well. However, this is the exception (the screenplay was even nominated for an Oscar). It should be stated that the events of Gladiator pay very little to the actual history but fidelity is not necessary to telling a compelling story (the real-life Commodus rose to power after dear old dad died from plague). Use what you need, I say.

Ridley Scott was on an artistic hot streak during the start of the twenty-first century, directing three movies within one and a half years of release and earning two Oscar nominations. He wanted to veer Gladiator away from anything too cheesy of older swords-and-sandals epics, as reported. This isn’t about homoerotic wrestling with men in unitards (in Jerry Seinfeld voice: not that there’s anything wrong with that) and instead about the grit and superficial glory of Rome. The opening battle in Germania is meant to show Maximus in action but it also shows just how overpowering the Roman Empire was during this time period. They just massacre the remaining German tribe, and there’s a reason we don’t focus on battle strategy and instead on the chaos. The conclusion of the battle is a shaky camera mess of bodies and flames and dark shapes. It’s a bloody mess and not something to be glorified. Maximus is tired. His men are tired. Even Marcus Aurelius is tired of his decade-long conquering of a map, adding little inches to an already gargantuan territory. When is it all enough? When is war a self-perpetuating quagmire?

This same dismissive view over conquest and glory carries throughout. When Maximus becomes a slave, he must play the blood-thirsty appetites of the crowd to reach his goals. He disdains the theater of combat, the delaying of strikes simply to draw out the drama of two men fighting to the death. Later, these same venal interests of the mob form a protection for Maximus. He’s too popular to just be assassinated because the Roman people just love watching how he slays opponents. There’s an implicit condemnation of popular entertainment built around the suffering of others. Scott has a purpose for his depictions of violence, and you could even make the argument he is drawing parallels between the bloodthirsty crowds of the Coliseum and modern-day moviegoers screaming for violence. What are the human costs for this entertainment? It’s not explicitly stated, and some might even say this level of commentary for a movie awash in bloodshed makes any such condemnation hollow or hypocritical. Maybe. The violence feels like it has weight even when it can border on feeling like a video game stage with enemies to clear.

Crowe (The Nice Guys) was already making a name for himself as a rugged character actor in movies like L.A. Confidential and The Insider, but it was Gladiator that made him a Hollywood leading man, a title that he always seems to have felt uncomfortable with. Crowe wasn’t the first choice of Scott and the filmmakers (Mel Gibson turned Maximus down saying he was too old), but it’s hard to imagine another person in the role now. Crowe has a commanding presence in the film, an immediate magnetism, that you understand why men would follow him into hell. That flinty intensity plays into the action movie strengths, but there’s also a reflective side to the man, a sense of humor that can be surprising and rewarding. There’s more to Maximus than avenging his wife and child, and Crowe brings shades of complexity to an instantly iconic role. He finds the tired soul of Maximus when he could have simply been a kickass killing machine. Between Crowe’s three Best Actor nominations in a row from 1999-2001, I think he won for the wrong performance. It’s a shame Crowe hasn’t been nominated since, which seems downright absurd. People have forgotten what an amazing actor Crowe can be, singing voice notwithstanding (I need a sequel to Master and Commander please and thank you).

This was also a breakout role for Joaquin Phoenix (Her), who has risen to become one of the most celebrated and chameleon-like actors of his generation. The character of Commodus is your classic example of an entitled child who doesn’t understand why people don’t like him. He’s a sniveling villain prone to temper tantrums (“I am vexed. I am very vexed”). Much like his co-star, Phoenix finds layers to the character rather than resting on a stock villain characterization. He’s really the jealous son who envies the preference and love given to Maximus, first from his father, then from his widowed sister (Connie Nielsen), and then from the Roman people. He whines that they love Maximus in a way he will never deserve. It’s hard not to even see a Trumpian psychology to Commodus, a man not equipped for the position of power he occupies who longs for adulation he hasn’t earned. You can hate the man, but you might also feel sorry for him despite yourself. When he wants to be pompous, he can be hilarious (I adored his quick reaction shots to the theatrical combat). When he wants to be creepy, he can be terrifying. You can even see some of the broken pieces here that Phoenix would masterfully use to compose his Oscar-winning Joker performance.

The supporting cast was gifted with great old actors getting one last victory lap. Richard Harris was so stately and grandfatherly that it got him the role of Dumbledore in the Harry Potter franchise. It also served as a great sendoff for Oliver Reed (Oliver!) as Proximo, the selfish, trash-talking former gladiator turned gladiator trainer. Reed died months into the production and before he had wrapped his part, requiring extensive reworking from the screenwriters (Logan was on set for much of the production to cater to the immediate day-to-day story needs). Scott used a body double and parlayed visual effects to recreate Reed’s face, much like what 1994’s The Crow was forced to do after the unfortunate death of its star, Brandon Lee. I kept looking for what moments would be Reed and what moments would be the CGI-enabled Reed double, and it was harder to determine than I thought, so nice job visual effects team. Reed had a reputation of being a carousing reprobate, so having a final performance that allowed him to tap into those old impulses plus the regrets of older age was a wonderful final match.

The other big takeaway upon my twenty-year re-watch was how recognizable and stirring Hans Zimmer’s famous score was, which lost the Oscar that year to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and that seems insane to me. Zimmer has been in a class all his own since the 90s with classic, instantly hum-able scores for True Romance, The Lion King, The Dark Knight, Inception, and The Pirates of the Caribbean, which borrows heavily from his theme for Gladiator. The score greatly adds to the excitement and majesty of the movie and can prove transporting by itself.

A truly bizarre post-script is the story of how the studio tried to develop a sequel. Gladiator was hugely successful but any sequel presented problems. Given the death of its star, following another character makes the most sense, and yet that’s not the direction the screenplay took. Eventually, the sequel to Gladiator was going to follow the ghost of Maximus as it travels through time including to modern-day. Just take a moment and dream of what could have been. Alas, we’ll likely never get time-traveling ghost Maximus now and we simply don’t deserve it as a society.

Reviewing my original film critique from 2000, I feel that my 18-year-old self was more entranced with making snappy, pithy blurbs than going into further detail on my analysis. My early reviews were far more declarative, saying something was good or bad and giving some detail but not dwelling on going deeper into the examination. This line, “The blood spills in the gallons and life and limb go flying enough your theater owner may consider setting down a tarp,” makes me cringe a little because it’s just trying too hard to be casually clever. I do enjoy the Mena Suvari rose petal joke. Still, I celebrated that a studio movie could emphasize its story first and foremost and my observations are still valid. I’m all but certain the only reason I knew who Steve Reeves was back then was because of his many appearances via Mystery Science Theater 3000 covering his cheesy swords-and-sandals films of old that Ridley Scott was so eager to avoid recreating (“Do you like films about gladiators?”)

Because the movie does so much so well, with some exceptional, it’s hard for me to rate Gladiator any lower than my initial grade of an A-, so that’s where I’m keeping it twenty years later. I think the national conversation has cooled on Gladiator, forgotten it because it wasn’t quite as audacious as other examples of early 2000s films, but it sets out to tell a familiar story on a big canvas and deserves its plaudits for somehow pulling it all off with style and gravity. It would be flippant to say Gladiator still slays the competition but it’s still mighty entertaining.

Re-View Grade: A-

Downhill (2020)/ Force Majeure (2014)

I’ve been meaning to watch 2014’s Force Majeure for some time but it was one of those movies that just fell behind and got trapped by the ever-increasing backlog of “to see” films. Then I discovered that there was to be an American remake by the Oscar-winning writing team behind The Descendants and I decided now would be a good time to go back to Force Majeure. But I purposely chose not to watch the Swedish original until after having watched the American remake, Downhill, to delay prejudicing myself. Both movies have value as cringe comedies prodding fragile masculinity, though the Swedish import runs more with the cascading consequences and the English remake plays more broadly with its big stars.

Both movies follow families on skiing vacations where the father (Johannes Kuhnke as Tomas, Will Ferrell as Pete) abandon their wives (Lisa Loven Kongdli as Ebba, Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Billie) and children when an approaching avalanche looks to be imminently deadly. It proves to be harmless but the scare it created was very real, and the damage to this family is also very real. In their dire moment of need, as death looked increasingly possible, this family watched its patriarch run away to save himself (and not before grabbing his phone). The father denies running away, finding his own slippery slope of excuses to pretend and convince his family that everything is still the same.

Downhill takes the very specific tone of the Swedish original by writer/director Ruben Ostlund (The Square) and plays it safer and more broadly. There’s an added context of the ski lodge being a couple’s resort with the idea of horny and available alternatives just a slope away for fun. The movie is practically throwing a more traditionally “manly” and virile romantic candidate at Billie and it’s so obvious and immediate that it reminded me of the sexy yoga instructor from 2009’s Couples Retreat, another movie that involved a holiday retreat with two camps, one more family-friendly and another more hedonistic. It feels too convenient and crass to immediately present our heroine with prime cheating options and have her question her own fidelity. In Force Majeure, one of the best and most awkward moments occurs when Tomas tries to portray himself as an equal victim to his own shortcomings as a man. He lists several faults, including infidelity, that don’t phase his wife, which implies she is well aware of this man’s flaws. It’s such a pathetic moment of emotional manipulation that incredulous laughter is the only natural response, and the movie makes the viewer stay in that uncomfortable squirm. Tomas lays on the floor wailing like a child, which then triggers his children to come out and lay upon their weeping father and then admonish their mother to follow their supportive lead. It’s a hilarious moment and borne from the organic developments tied to character relationships. In Downhill, by contrast, we get stuff like the sexy ski instructor and a really horny, handsy lodge lady (Miranda Otto, in thick accent).

That’s not to say the remake doesn’t find effective ways to make the most of its American infusion. There’s a scene where Pete and Billie are complaining to the ski lodge staff because someone must account for their perceived injury. The moment doesn’t go as they hoped and the security head (Game of Thrones’ Kristofer Hivju) refuses to apologize or admit any wrong. He points out all the warnings that the American couple somehow missed, and this only causes Billie to grow in her impotent agitation. It’s a moment that plays to the ugly American stereotype of self-absorption and the insistence to be heard. This scene would not have worked with the Force Majeure characters at all. Billie is a more interesting character and given more ambiguity and flaws than Ebba, who is often the perplexed voice of the audience. There are adaptation changes and new jokes that work for Downhill but more often it doesn’t explore the comic avenues open to it (hashtag jokes… really?). The best jokes are frequently holdovers.

Something I enjoyed exclusively about Force Majeure was how it widened its scope to include the contagious nature of questioning masculine assumptions. The supporting characters have more significance than in Downhill. Tomas’ friend, Mats (Game of Thrones’ Kristofer Hivju), begins as an awkward lifeline trying to offer meager supportive explanations to his beleaguered friend’s cowardice (“You ran away so that you could come back and dig everyone out, right?”) and then he too is negatively affected. His much younger girlfriend begins to look at him differently and with suspicion, wondering if he too would disappoint when under a similar life-threatening scenario. She questions whether it’s simply a generational divide and an older generation (Mats) just doesn’t feel as brave and selfless. This eats away at Mats and wreaks havoc with his relationship. You too might consider how well you really know your loved ones and how you might respond as well. It’s such a wonderful what-if scenario to apply to one’s self. This contagious nature of doubt makes the story feel that much more interesting when one man’s failings can spiral outward and ensnare others. This deepened the dark comedy and provided interesting and complimentary side characters. With Downhill, we don’t really get any other characters on the same level of consideration as our main couple, Pete and Billie.

The children actually play a bigger role in Downhill as the relationship between the sons and their father is on the brink. They see him decidedly different and Pete spends time trying to regain their favor and trust and, naturally, failing. With Force Majeure, the children are kept on the sidelines and they’re more worried that mom and dad may be doomed to a divorce rather than being upset or disappointed with their father. Downhill clearly aligns the sons with their mother and has Billie call upon them to provide corroborating testimony to her account in one deliciously awkward extended moment. It’s one area where Downhill bests its source material but again that’s because it also dramatically scales down the importance of supporting adults.

Ferrell (Holmes & Watson) and Louis-Dreyfus (Veep) are such an enjoyable comedy pairing and work together smoothly for Downhill’s broader aims. The Swedish actors are far more subdued, understated, and dry, dissolving into playing mundane, regular folk. You’re not going to get that with Ferrell especially. His big screen buffoon tendencies play well for Pete’s blustery self-deluded narcissism, but he lacks the bite for the destructive self-pity that emboldened Kuhnke. Ferrell’s performance is more restrained than you might assume but he still doesn’t feel like the right fit for the character and where he needs to go. He never stops being seen as Ferrell. Louis-Dreyfus is such a pro and is able to navigate the bleaker comedy with great precision. Her shaken monologue retelling the avalanche incident and pausing on “… to die, I guess” had me rolling.

Downhill is over 30 minutes shorter and yet it feels stretched thin, circling the same comic points, which can make the film feel frustratingly smaller in scope and ambition. The endings are different and come across a similar message over never knowing how a person may respond in the middle of danger. Force Majeure concludes with a scenario that allows its wounded males to save some honor and the women to question their own responses, a paradigm shift of gender expectations. The triumphant recapturing of masculinity builds to its own satirical breaking point, ready to laugh at Tomas feeling like a ridiculous John Wane-style cowboy. In contrast, the American ending doesn’t feel as rich or as earned as its predecessor.

Downhill is an accessible and funny remake that has some smart deviations from its source material to deliver its own version, and sometimes it feels like the filmmakers want to make a much more mainstream comedy. The tonal identity issues sap the comedic and dramatic momentum of the story, which can make the overall film frustrating and unsatisfying at times while you wait for it to settle. Then its 85 minutes are over and it’s done. Force Majeure, on the other hand, is the most confident, strident, and awkward viewing, not to mention longer viewing at two hours in length. It’s actually too long and with a few segments that could be trimmed or removed entirely (drone flying, the first set of friends, getting lost in a snowy fog). There’s even a running joke where the gag is simply that the ski lifts and moving sidewalks are just super slow. The movie takes its understated, dry comic sensibility even to its relaxed sense of pacing. Both movies are funny and emphasize different aspects of the premise of the consequences of cowardice. I likely would have enjoyed Downhill less had I seen Force Majeure first but it’s still a decent American remake for something that was so calculating and exact in tone, a laugh-out-loud comedy that doesn’t play like a comedy. Still, co-writers/directors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (The Way Way Back) have enough skill and polished instinct that even a less sophisticated, more obvious version of Force Majeure is still entertaining enough. It might lack some of the edge of the original but Downhill is an agreeable comedy of disagreeable decisions.

Nate’s Grades:

Force Majeure: B+

Downhill: 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-

Little Women (2019)

By my count, this is approximately the 182nd version of Louisa May Alcott’s Civil War sisterhood. There must be something universal about the trials of the March sisters and their struggles for independence, agency, love, and happy endings on their own turns. Greta Gerwig, fresh off her Oscar nominations for Lady Bird, has given Little Women a decidedly modern spin. The story flashes back and forth between past and present, sometimes in consecutive shots, and feels full of authentic youthful energy. It’s also the first adaptation I’ve watched that has fixed the problem of Amy (Florence Pugh, affecting), widely regarded as the least liked sister. Through Gerwig’s telling, she becomes a self-determined woman, just like Jo (Saoirse Ronan), who recognizes the social trappings holding her back but chooses to do her best within this unfair system rather than rage against it. It’s like an empathetic reclamation for this often reviled character. The enjoyment of Little Women is how vibrant and different each of the March sisters is and how an audience can see degrees of one’s self in each little woman. Jo is by all accounts our lead and her struggle to be a successful writer pushes her against conventions of the era. There is an invented and very amusing bookend where Jo bickers with a blowhard male publisher (Tracy Letts) about “women’s melodrama.” It’s a meta commentary on Alcott’s book herself, especially with the helping of marriages and happy endings by story’s end. Ronan is a force of nature in the film and sweeps up everyone around her with charm. Meryl Streep is supremely amusing as an older rich aunt bemoaning the girls won’t get anywhere without marrying a wealthy man. The limited options for a working-class family are given great consideration, but it’s really a movie that seems to pulsate with the exciting feelings of being young, having the world stretch out before you, and chasing your dream, rain or shine. It’s also gorgeously shot and feels so assured from Gerwig as a solo director. There are a few detractions for this new 2019 Little Women, the biggest being how confusing it can get with its melded chronologies. If this is your first exposure to Alcott’s story, I fear you’ll get lost more than a few times trying to keep everything in order. The love story with lovesick pretty boy Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) feels tacked on even though it’s a feature of the novel. This newly structured, reinvigorated, charming remake of a literary classic feels definitely of the period and of today. It’s the first Little Women adaptation that made me realize how timeless this story really can feel in the right hands. It may be the 182nd version but it might be the best one yet.

Nate’s Grade: B+

1917 (2019)

We all know what the immediate appeal for 1917 is and that is its bravura gimmick of making the entire two hours appear as if it is one long, unbroken film take. Long tracking shots have famously been used in films before, like Goodfellas and Atonement, and entire movies have been filmed through the illusion of a single take, from Hitchcock’s Rope to Russian Ark to Best Picture-winner Birdman. The difference between those one-take movies and 1917 is that none of them were a war movie that takes place primarily outdoors in very real elements. The sheer technical audacity of the feat demands that it be see on the big screen when able. It’s like a cinematic magic trick, allowing you to sit in awe at the sheer ambition and technical wizardry of the filmmakers and continue muttering, “How did they do that?” When done right, it can reawaken that magical feel of watching something impressively new, but is there any more than a gimmick?

It’s 1917 and two ordinary British soldiers, Lance Corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, a.k.a. “Tommen” from Game of Thrones) and Schofield (George MacKay), are tasked with a life-saving mission. A military unit is walking into a trap, and if they do not deliver this dire message in mere hours, hundreds of men will die, including Blake’s older brother. They have only hours before the fateful attack is launched and must traverse into enemy territory that may not be as deserted as they have been lead to believe.

Whatever else you think about 1917, it is worth watching simply to witness the awe-inspiring technical vision from director Sam Mendes (Skyfall, American Beauty). The sheer scope of this movie is overwhelming when it comes to the logistics of being able to keep the camera roaming, which will go from handheld to crane to swooping lines above. It feels alive with that vitality of theater, knowing that if something were to go wrong that everyone would just adjust and move onward. When you see someone tip-toeing along the edge of a bridge, that’s them doing so. When you watch someone diving for cover, it’s really happening, and Mendes wants you to know. It brings an interesting verité feel to something that must have been planned within an inch of its existence. But was it? Did the actors meet the exact same blocking marks every take? Were the clouds aligned just so each time? I’m willing to credit legendary cinematographer Roger Deakens (Blade Runner 2047) with extra plaudits not just for arranging all the logistics of the busy camerawork but for finding pleasing visual compositions on the spot, using what was available. He deserves all the awards because this movie is nothing but brilliant photography and production design. A segment where we run through the ruins of a French village at night, with German flares providing momentary bursts of visible light above, is astounding. I think about the meticulous precision of the camerawork, the timing of the lighting cues, the practice of the actors and story decision to run in darkness and hide for cover in light, the pursuers giving chase, and it just makes my head hurt from all the daunting coordination. It might be dismissively viewed as a WWII video game and the characters as the avatars we urge onward, and I don’t disagree. I found the entire enterprise to be deeply immersive, visceral, and thrilling in its stunning sense of verisimilitude.

However, I’ll admit, dear reader, that I was growing bored by the first ten minutes or so, and I even admit that this was in some part by design. Given its proximity to being in real time (the trek we are told should take 6 hours) it means early on there is a lot of walking. Before we venture out into No Man’s Land, it feels like we’re just watching people walk and walk and walk through the lengthy English trenches. It can become a bit repetitive and your mind may wander, but there is a rationale for this from Mendes and company. It communicates what the geography of battle and day-to-day life was like for the soldiers, to go from one supposedly safe section, snaking round and round to the front lines, noting the distance but also, in practical terms, how close life and death were from one another. It’s also a recognition of the reality of trench warfare and you can stop and think, “Wow, the production actually built this entire miles-long trench,” but then you can just as easily transition to, “Wow, people really dug in and built these structures back in 1912.” The long walk serves as the confirmation not just of a top-notch film production but also of the hardened reality of a soldier bogged down in a trench for months. The First Act is essentially them walking to the front line, crossing over into No Man’s Land, and approaching the German trench on the other side. On paper, that doesn’t sound like too much in the way of story events, but it’s our introduction as an audience into the life that these soldiers experienced. Each crater, each corpse strewn on the battlefield, it helps paint a larger picture of the unseen stories leading to this moment. It’s a very real equivalent of “show, don’t tell” storytelling, and the long walk better cements in our minds just how daunting this trial will be, especially since every step after the trench is fraught with danger.

I figured that 1917 was going to be more about its gimmick and that the characters would suffer under the weight of this setup, and it’s true that they could be sharper, but 1917 succeeds in ways that I found Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk lacking. By focusing primarily on two characters and hinging success or failure on them alone, the film does a better job of providing me a personal entry point into the larger conflict. I have someone I can follow from the start, and that’s not just because the camera is confined to their immediate orbit. About halfway through, the movie makes a turn that really ups the stakes as well as my emotional involvement in a way that I never felt during 2017’s Dunkirk, which felt too removed with its interchangeable, faceless characters. With Dunkirk, it was a race against time but this was muddled by its non-linear, time-hopping structure. It’s a race against time but you were given three different sets of time that would crash into one another. It was too clever to feel the urgency. With 1917, it’s streamlined to the essential (get to point A before X time) and the urgency is alive in every moment. Not only do our characters not know what they’ll discover past the German lines, if they deviate too long, they may well arrive too late to stop a doomed attack. I assumed our characters would persevere, but as the film carried on, and the setbacks mounted, I began to doubt. Would this be another Gallipoli scenario of pointless death at the behest of arrogance, stubbornness, and bad information? By the end I didn’t know and that gnawing uncertainty provided a tremendous spark of tension.

It can be episodic, it can feel more like a gimmick than a movie, but 1917 is a prime example of why we go to the movies. We go to be dazzled and transported through the magic and marvels of expert craftsmen and to throw ourselves into the complicated, messy, intriguing world of strangers that we get to cheer for, laugh with, and possibly cry over. The technical accomplishments will be heralded for years and studied long after. It’s a technical feat but, thankfully, the movie is more than merely its magic act. The human drama becomes personalized, universal, and engaging. There are several moments meant to breathe, including one gorgeous moment in hiding with a Frenchwoman and a baby that is beautiful in its cross-language connection on a human level. The suspense can be overwhelming and I was rocking back and forth whether or not characters would be caught, seen, or make it out alive, always remembering the stakes of failure. Watching 1917 is like holding your breath for two hours and then exhaling at long last upon the end credits. I feel that there are enough resonating elements that provide substance for the movie to stand on its own merits but it will forever be known for its long, coordinated feature-length tracking shot. Even if that is its lasting legacy, 1917 is still a thrilling and immersive achievement in filmmaking ambition.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Bombshell (2019)

More an expose on toxic work environments than anything overtly political, Bombshell is an effective true-life drama about the many pitfalls, humiliations, traps, harassment, and compromises that women face in the workforce. We follow the downfall of news magnate Roger Ailes (John Lithgow), the imposing man who built the Fox News empire and who also bullied his employees and solicited sexual favors from the many women who were on his payroll. Margot Robbie plays an invented character meant to provide that entry point into Ailes the creep in creepy action. She’ll be harassed and pressured for sex by a man described as “Jabba the Hut,” and Robbie is terrific in her big dramatic moments portraying what the pressure and shame does for her ambitious anchor. The other two main characters wrestle with how far to go in a corporate culture of keeping secrets from very powerful, very dirty old men. Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is consulting lawyers for a personal harassment lawsuit against Ailes the person, not Fox News, but she needs other women to come forward. Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) is struggling with the scrutiny she has endured after then-presidential candidate Donald Trump turns his small Twitter thumbs against her. The Fox bigwigs won’t go on record to defend her, and their journalists, because they need Trump to drive ratings. The movie uses several Big Short-style narrative tricks to help tell its sordid tale, including swapping narration and fourth-wall breaks; a run through of hearing from Ailes’ past victims in their own words is striking, especially a woman who says she was only 16 at the time. Part of the fun are the many many cameos and just watching actors portray different Fox News personalities (Richard Kind as Rudy Guiliani!). The makeup is also phenomenal and Theron looks unrecognizable as Kelly. The film itself doesn’t feel like it’s telling you anything you already don’t know about the subject; people will compromise their morals for personal gain, power leads to exploitation, women are unfairly treated, and it’s easier to fall in line than stand up to power. There’s still a thrill of watching the downfall of a serial abuser, and the acting is strong throughout, but Bombshell can’t shake the feeling of being a slicker, more star-studded TV movie version of recent history. Even with the urgency of the topic, it feels light, and not because of its use of incredulous humor. I could have used more behind-the-scenes details, and maybe that’s where Showtime’s miniseries The Loudest Voice comes in, retelling the same story with Russell Crowe as Ailes. It’s a solid movie on a very pertinent subject and worth seeing but it also makes me wish for a harder-hitting, more widely sourced expose on this very bad man who felt forever protected by the status quo of power.

Nate’s Grade: B

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

Marriage Story (2019)

Noah Baumbach is a writer and director most known for acerbic dramas with a very dark, pessimistic viewpoint. That changed somewhat once he began a filmmaking partnership with actress Greta Gerwig that began with 2013’s Frances Ha. Gerwig has since gone on to become an accomplished filmmaker in her own right with 2017’s Lady Bird, which earned her Oscar nominations for writing and directing. The partnership seemed to bring out a softer side for Baumbach and they became a romantic couple who had a child earlier in 2019. Hell, Gerwig and Baumbach are even circling writing a Barbie movie together. This is a changed filmmaker and he brings that changed perspective to Marriage Story. It’s very different from Baumbach’s other movie about divorce, 2005’s The Squid and the Whale. I found that movie difficult, detached, and hard to emotionally engage with. Marriage Story, on the other hand, is a deeply felt, deeply observed, and deeply moving film experience that counts as one of the finest films of 2019.

Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) are heading for divorce. He’s a successful theater director. She was a successful movie actress who relocated to New York City and has gotten an offer to shoot a pilot in L.A. Both say they want what’s best for their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson) but this will be tested as Charlie and Nicole push one another for what they feel is their best version of their family.

The observational detail in Marriage Story is awe inspiring. I was floored by how involved I got and how quickly, and that’s because Baumbach has achieved what few filmmakers are able to, namely present a world of startling authenticity. There is a richness in the details, small and large, that makes the entire story feel like you’ve captured real life and thrown it onscreen. I wouldn’t pry but Baumbach himself went through divorce around the time he was writing this, and I have to think some of those feelings and details seeped into this screenplay. Baumbach’s direction favors clarity and giving his actors wide berths to unleash meaty monologues or dynamic dialogue exchanges. The writing is sensational and every character is given a point of view that feels well realized. Even the combative lawyers (Laura Dern, Ray Liotta) have perspectives you can see why they’re fighting for what they believe is right. But it’s watching Charlie and Nicole together that brings the most excitement. Watching the both of them onscreen allows for so much study of the little histories behind their words, their gestures, their impulses, and they feel like a great mystery to unpack. It feels like a real relationship you’ve been dropped into and left to pick up the histories and contradictions and all the rest that make people who they are.

It’s very easy and understandable for divorce dramas to essentially pick sides, to present a clearly defined protagonist and antagonist, like 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer. It’s easier for an audience to have a clear side to root for and a clear villain to root against, someone who they can see is more responsible for this breakdown of the family unit or for the infliction of emotional pain. What Baumbach does is something rare and exceedingly compassionate; he makes us like these two people as a couple in the opening ten minutes so that we can see how they could have shared a loving relationship for so long. The opening is mirrored voice over where each spouse narrates what they love or admire about the other person, and by doing this it’s like we too get to see these people in this adoring light. It’s like a ten-minute love letter and then it gets ripped away. However, by starting with this foundation, Baumbach has invested the audience immediately. We care about both of these people because we’ve seen them at their best, and now as things get more acrimonious and harder, it hurts us too because of that emotional investment. Marriage Story does not adopt a side or ask its audience to choose. It presents both parties as essentially good people but with their flaws and combustibility that point to them being likely better apart. That doesn’t mean they don’t still care for one another or have essential elements of friendship. A simple shoelace tying at the very end of the movie nearly had me in tears because of its everyday act of kindness. These are complex human beings with needs, desires, egos, pressure points, and we watch both of them struggle through a stressful process where they’re trying to do right but that definition keeps morphing with every next step. If there are villains, it’s the lawyers, but even they are given degrees of explanation and perspectives to explain why they fight as hard as they do.

I have read several reviews that disagree with my “no sides” assessment, citing how the movie presents more of Charlie’s perspective during Act Two, and this is true. The extra time onscreen, however, doesn’t erase his faults as a husband. The transition to this handover is Nicole unburdening herself to her lawyer (Dern) in a gorgeous seven-minute monologue. It’s a thrilling moment for Johansson as the character begins guarded and afraid of saying anything too harsh, and then as she starts talking it’s like you watch layer after layer get pulled free, allowing this woman to open up about her untended wants and desires and to legitimately be heard in perhaps the first time in a decade, and it’s so powerful and sympathetic and natural. To then think that Baumbach intends to portray this same woman as a villain seems like a misreading. The second act does involve Charlie being more reactive to the new obstacles of divorce, like being forced to hire a lawyer to officially respond, to start a residence in L.A., and to eventually be observed by an evaluator of the court. He holds to the belief that he and Nicole don’t need the acrimony, don’t need the pain, and that they can be adults when it comes to deciding their end. Whether this is naivety will depend on your own worldview, but holding to this belief gets Charlie playing catch-up a lot and having to roll with changes for fear of being seen as an uncooperative parent, like when Nicole’s friends don’t want to go trick-or-treating with Charlie present so he’s forced into a second later more pathetic outing. We do get to see Charlie beset with challenges but that doesn’t erase Nicole’s challenges too.

For a movie as deeply human as this one, it’s also disarming just how funny it can be. The humor is never cheap or distracting but just another element that makes Marriage Story so adept. While the movie has its lows, it can also find delicate and absurd humor in the moment, reminding the audience that life isn’t always doom and gloom even when things are going poorly. The sequence where Nicole and her sister (Merritt Weaver, wonderful) are bickering over the exact steps to legally serve Charlie divorce papers reminded me of a screwball comedy, how the nerves and fumbles of the characters were elevating the experience into touching the absurd. Nicole’s entire family is a great comedic array of characters including her mother (Julie Hagerty) who says she has her own personal relationship with her daughter’s ex-husband that she wishes to maintain. They even have pet names for one another (this brought back memories for me as I’ve had mothers of ex-girlfriends still want to talk with me weeks after their daughter dumped me). The legal asides are also filled with absurdist moments of comedy about double-speak and the arcane or idiosyncratic rules of divorce and representation in the courts. The sequence of Charlie being watched by the deadpanned court evaluator (Martha Kelley, TV’s Baskets) is a terrific example of cringe comedy. He’s trying to impress her but she’s generally unflappable, to hilarious degree, and it only leads to more miscues that Charlie tries to ignore or downplay to win her favor.

Make no mistake, Marriage Story is also one of the hardest hitting dramas of the year. Because we like both participants, because there is something at stake, watching them tear each other apart is a painful and revelatory experience. There is one gigantic confrontation that, like Nicole’s first confession, begins small and cordial and builds and builds in intensity, to the point where walls are punched, threats are unleashed, and both parties end in tears. It’s a thrilling sequence that feels akin to watching the defusing of a bomb ready to explode. Baumbach never feels the need to artificially inflate his drama, so we stick with that observational and compassionate ethos that has guided the entire film, even during the ugly moments. These are two people with pain and frustrations who both feel they have been wronged and are in the right. They’re both entitled to their pain, they’re both at fault for letting things get to this precipice, and they can both acknowledge that as well. Because even at their worst, Nicole and Charlie are still portrayed as human beings and human beings worthy of our empathy. They aren’t heroes or villains, they’re simply real people trying to navigate a hard time with conflicting feelings and needs.

The acting is outstanding. Driver (BlackkKlansman) is sensational and goes through an emotional wringer to portray Charlie, trying to stay above it all for so long and losing parts of himself along the way. His outbursts are raw and cut right through, but it’s also his smaller moments of ignorance, dismissiveness, or tenderness that linger, providing a fuller picture of who Charlie is, why one could fall in love with him and why one could fall out of love. I fully expect Driver to be the front-runner for the Best Actor Oscar. He even gets to sing a Sondheim tune and uses it as a reflection point. A late moment, when he’s reading a particular letter, drew tears and got me choked up. He’s always been such a visceral actor, a man with a magnetic charisma and animalistic sense of energy that draws your attention. He’s finally found a role that showcases how brilliant an actor Driver can be. This is also easily the best work of Johansson’s (Avengers: Endgame) career. Let there be no doubt – this woman can be a tremendous actress with the right material. She’s struggling with her sense of identity, being tied to Charlie for so long, and “wanting my own Earth” for so long that the dissolution process is both tumultuous but also exciting for what it promises. Nicole can take those chances, her Hollywood viability still alive, and strike out doing the things she’s wanted to do, like direct. Her character has felt like a supportive prisoner for so long and now she gets to make a jailbreak. Johansson is an equal partner onscreen to Driver, trading the tenderness and hostility moment-for-moment.

This is Noah Baumbach’s finest film to date, and I adored Frances Ha. I was expecting a degree of bitterness from the normally prickly filmmaker, and that’s to be had considering the subject matter of divorce. What I wasn’t expecting was the depth of feeling and compassion that flows from this movie’s very steady beating heart. It feels real and honest in a way that a movie simply about the horrors of divorce and breakups and custody battles could not. Baumbach’s characters aren’t just meant to suffer and inflict pain, they’re meant to come through the other side with something still intact. I’d argue that Marriage Story, even with its suffering, is ultimately a hopeful movie. It shows how two people can navigate the pain they’ve caused one another and still find an understanding on the other side. Driver and Johansson are fantastic and deliver two of the finest acting performances of this year. Baumbach’s incredible level of detail makes the movie feel instantly authentic, lived-in, and resonant. I was hooked early, pulling for both characters, and spellbound by the complexity and development. There isn’t a false note in the entire two-plus hours onscreen. It feels like you’re watching real people. Marriage Story is a wonderful movie and I hope people won’t be scared off by its subject matter. It’s funny, empathetic, and resoundingly humane, gifting audiences with a rich portrait. It should be arriving to Netflix streaming by December 6, so fire up your queue and have the tissues at the ready.

Nate’s Grade: A

Ford vs. Ferrari (2019)

I don’t care one lick about cars and I was greatly entertained by Ford vs. Ferrari, a thrilling look back where the gear-heads at Ford wanted to build a new model of racing car that could challenge the seemingly unbeatable Italians at the Le Mans raceway. The smartest move the movie makes is placing this as a character-driven story with a group of big personalities solving a puzzle and trying to prove the arrogant suits wrong. It has such winning elements that it’s got crowd-pleaser DNA all over it, even if you’ll likely predict every step of the story. Even if you know nothing about the history of racing and motor vehicles, you can suspect that designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) will, through grit and confidence and outside-the-box thinking, overcome their obstacles to win the 1966 Le Mans race. The movie even realizes this, and that’s why the climax of the movie isn’t whether or not Ford will triumph but on a very personal dilemma and choice. It’s less about the mechanics of cars and more about simply solving problems with innovative solutions, and there’s a great satisfaction in watching characters we care about get closer to solving a puzzle that has outwitted the masses. As the characters get excited, we get excited because the personal is what is felt most. Miles is an arrogant, disgraced driver that Ford doesn’t want being the face of anything for the company. Shelby is trying to transition from being in a car to the head of a company, and he’s the heat shield for his team, taking the corporate ire and laying more and more on the line for their experiments. Damon is great, and sounds uncannily like Tommy Lee Jones, but this is chiefly Bale’s movie and he is fantastic. He once again just disappears into a character, this time the lanky, cocky, hard-driving family man, and the scenes with Miles’ wife and son actually provide important dimension to all the participants. They aren’t simply there to express concern or admiration. The screenplay by the Butterworth brothers (Edge of Tomorrow) and Jason Keller (Machine Gun Preacher) have opened up these characters, their fear, anxieties, hopes, and dreams in a way that feels genuine and considerate. They hook us in with the characters early, so that the rest of the film serves as a series of payoffs for our investment. The racing sequences are thrilling as director James Mangold (Logan) has his camera career around the cars, placing the audience in the middle of the RPMs and feeling that immersive sense of speed. I never knew that the Le Mans race is 24 hours long, and the scene of these 1960s cars, with 1960s windshield wiper technology, driving in the rain and dark at 200 miles-per-hour is starkly terrifying. I still don’t care much about cars or their history, but you present me engaging characters and Oscar-caliber performances to boot, and I’ll watch those people anywhere. Ford vs. Ferrari is a bit long (150 minutes) but a well-crafted, potent crowd-pleaser with exhilarating racing and strong characters worthy of cheering.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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