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I Still Believe (2020)

I Still Believe was one of the last wide releases before theaters shuttled thanks to COVID-19. It was a low-budget Christian indie by the Erwin brothers, Andrew and Jon (I Can Only Imagine, October Baby). My expectations were already low and the final film is equal parts earnest and goofy, but where it goes wrong is with its stretched-out passion play built on suffering.

Jeremy Camp (K.J. Apa) heads to college and falls instantly in love with art student, Melissa (Britt Robertson). He’s a budding Christian musician and gets his big break from fellow “student” and successful musician, Jean Luc (Nathan Parsons). Jeremy and Melissa’s relationship is tested when she is given a cancer diagnosis, but he’s unwavering in his support. They pray for help and struggle for meaning, with Jeremy turning to music for answers.

As with many Christian indies, I’ve discovered that the elements of filmmaking and storytelling are generally secondary to whatever the message is the film wishes to confirm for its built-in audience. So the details don’t really matter as much as the bigger picture, which in this case I assume is to inspire in its audience that even when they are suffering that God has a plan for them. I can see how people can find that topic comforting because one of the nagging questions in theology is over why a loving God would allow terrible things to happen to good people. The best the film can surmise is that there is a “greater good” sort of response we cannot know, and that the death of one person could have ripple effects and inspire many millions more. That’s what I Still Believe is proposing with its true story, namely that the tale of Jeremy Camp’s deceased first wife happened to inspire millions and bring them closer to God through Camp’s music and storytelling over his loss. Either you find that comforting and an answer enough or you don’t, but if you question that logic, then the movie demonstrating this resembles a cruel passion play.

Even before I started this movie, I knew that Melissa was going to die, and I knew her ultimate purpose was going to be to push the man along on his own spiritual and artistic journey. She dies so that you can become a better guitarist, Jeremy. I don’t mean to sound crass considering these are based on real people, and the real Melissa really died, and her friends and family felt real grief. My critical aims are with how the movie handles this and not her real tragic loss. I think many can be irritated when a movie says a character’s ultimate suffering was all to prop up another character; I’m reminded of numerous Hollywood stories about African-American suffering where it props up a white savior character to learn or achieve Important Things. This nagging feeling would have been lessened had Jeremy come across as a more compelling character in the movie and, even, a more compelling artist. He’s a pretty bland white dude and his music is fairly vanilla acoustic guitar soft rock. The music is earnest, it’s pleasant enough, but there’s nothing that really stands out, but that assessment is personal, I admit. I struggle with movies that try to convince me of someone’s artistic ascendance but don’t feel like they back it up with the evidence for that fame. The character of Jeremy onscreen is a nice guy, well-meaning, but he’s more interesting when he’s in the goofy love triangle with Jean Luc. Once Melissa gets her cancer diagnosis, his characterization just gets put on hold. He becomes a loving caretaker and then, once she inevitably passes, he becomes a loving and bereaved husband.

This is where I rankle because that cancer diagnosis comes so early and that is all the movie becomes afterwards, and when we all know where I Still Believe is ultimately heading, it becomes very tedious and arguably garish. The cancer diagnosis happens with an entire hour left to go, which means we’re left to watch Melissa get sick, everyone worry and cry, and when her remission happens with a half hour left to the movie, you know we’re just biding time until it comes back again because what else are we going to do with all this extra time? It’s not like Melissa, fresh from beating cancer, says to her man, “Let’s pull off a heist.” We all know where this is going, so this momentary reprieve and the movie treating it like, “Hooray, look at what prayer has done,” feels downright cruel because we know it’s not going to last. We know the rest of the road ahead is going to be watching her returned suffering, which is the entire movie. It is a passion play where we watch a young woman suffer and die so that we will ultimately get some songs written about her memory and experience. For those outside the target audience, this can become borderline offensive, and from a storytelling standpoint so much is left simply broad.

The most enjoyable parts of I Still Believe for me are how goofy it can be especially with its fuzzy details. This is a movie without any sense of humor and yet it can inspire laughter. Jeremy seems to be attending a school where he never has to do any work. This school is also I guess a regular stop for Jean Luc, an alum who has already become famous and has a backing band, so why does he just keep showing up to perform on this campus? Doesn’t he tour outside the school? Also, Jeremy is almost immediately successful. He’s thrown onstage in what amounts to the film’s Star is Born moment when Jean Luc invites Jeremy to share his special song to a live audience. From there, Jeremy is recording, performing regular to packed crowds, to the point that I questioned when he has a sit-down with his college dean about quitting school to tend to the ailing Melissa, I was shocked he was still attending school at all. Isn’t he just a successful musician now? My opening impression of Jeremy as he goes off to college is positive, as he calms down his impaired little brother who is bereft with the departure. Then over the opening credits he’s playing his acoustic guitar on a charter bus and I thought how rude that would be. But by far the most amusing part of the movie is the love triangle between Jeremy, Melissa, and Jean Luc. First off, every time a character says the name “Jean Luc” with such seriousness I giggled. The actor seems so much older than everyone else, though he’s only two years older than Robertson (who is 7 years older than Apa). The love triangle is enough to keep Melissa from being public about dating Jeremy, and when he presses her on it, she pushes back that he should return the jacket that Jean Luc gave him, as if these are equivalent. And then she keeps bringing it up. Jean Luc isn’t even a character so much as a platform of opportunity for Jeremy and then a contrived obstacle for their blooming romance.

The acting overall falls into that earnest yet occasionally goofy territory of many Christian indies. It’s not quite camp but there are moments where characters are so serious that things feel a tad off, like we’re just seconds away from everyone breaking into laughter. Apa (Riverdale) is blandly appealing but feels very much like Zac Efron lite. He does all his own singing and guitar playing which is more technically impressive than the character he has been given. Robertson showed such promise with 2015’s Tomorrowland and seems to be given little to do here. She’s slated in that dewy role as the Wise Woman Fated For Tragedy, which is kind of like the more somber terminal illness equivalent of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Even in her last moments, she seems to have a radiance of knowledge. I wish I could say there was strong chemistry between the leads but Apa has better chemistry with his guitar. Then there are Jeremy’s parents played by Gary Sinise and, surprise surprise, recording star Shania Twain. This is only her third film appearance and she is given so little to do that, frankly, it didn’t impress me much. The best performance in the film happens late when Jeremy meets a fan (Abigail Cowen) who monologues what Jeremy’s songs and experiences have met to her and how they’ve changed her life. It’s a moment that feels emotionally affecting even if you know it’s here to literally remind the audience of the theme. That same woman would then go on to become Jeremy’s wife, so good for them.

I Still Believe isn’t offensively bad, campy, or even theologically misguided in its view of morality like a hokey Kirk Cameron vehicle. It feels like a glossy made-for-TV movie that just happens to be made for a majority-Christian audience. The message is paramount, and all else serves the message, which means the characters are uninteresting, the story is redundant to the point of piling on cruelty, and the overall earnest tone can approach unintentional goofiness. It feels like much of the film is padding the running time with lengthy musical performances like a concert movie. It’s also a movie without enough story to cover its near two-hour length. Either you connect with the overall message that there can be meaning in suffering or you see past it and take umbrage with the movie presenting a woman’s suffering as character development for a soon-to-be popular musician. This is like a Christian weepie version of The Fault in Our Stars, which was another movie we knew where it would be headed, but it lacks the effort level. The Erwin brothers shoot everything either with annoyingly distracting handheld camerawork or swooping drone footage. The film has technical merit but filmed like it’s a collection of B-roll for some prescription drug ad (all those smiling, warmly lit faces on the beach having fun). I Still Believe is a blandly dull movie built upon extended suffering and extended musical performances. Maybe it knows its audience too well but I doubt anyone outside the flock will find inspiration here.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson (2020)

As soon as I read about the director of The Haunting of Sharon Tate’s follow-up movie, I knew it was destined for a spot on my worst of 2020 list. This filmmaker wasn’t exactly presenting nuanced and sympathetic portraits of famous dead celebrities, and instead was exploiting their fame and their famous demises for cheap genre thrills. The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson was always destined to be a bad movie with these people involved with these intentions. This sleazy thriller is rife with bad decisions, bad faith, and victim blaming to its very nasty core.

Nicole Brown (Mena Suvari) is trying to start her life over after divorcing her famous husband, O.J. Simpson (Gene Freeman). She meets a painter named Glen (Nick Stahl) and invites him to paint her home, to make it more her new sanctuary. Except Glen is a disturbed drifter who will eventually be known as the Casanova Killer who had murdered many blonde women. From there, Glen stalks Nicole and terrorizes her to her very end. Sigh.

The very nature of its premise alleviates the guilt from Nicole’s abusive, controlling husband. Oh sure, the movie still says O.J. is dangerous and jealous and protected by his personal relationships with many of the local law enforcement, but this is mitigated by the very act of using O.J.’s own half-baked alibi assertion from the infamous cash-grab hypothetical literary tome, “If I Did It.” In this highly disingenuous “hypothetical,” O.J. says he might have met a friend named “Charlie” and it was “Charlie” who did the killing and O.J. says he was simply blacking out that night as an unexpected accomplice. First off, the very nature of this book is disgusting, but the fact that this movie uses it as a foundation to posit an alternative theory that lessens O.J.’s blood-stained culpability is like re-telling the Ted Bundy’s account where a frisky and mischievous friend was really the one consuming people. What exactly is the purpose of presenting this alternative theory, which is predicated on the flimsiest of even a whisper of evidence; Glen Rogers’ brother says that mentally disturbed Glen once told him he killed Nicole Brown. That’s it. Add Glen talking to a voice in his head, a dark impulse he calls “Charlie,” and that’s the only connective tissue the movie provides for this new theory.

The entire inclusion of this “Could it be someone else?” theory is for crass sensationalism. Because if the filmmakers were trying to do anything beyond gaining craven attention, they would present a more compelling relationship between Nicole and Glen. The portrayal makes Nicole look like the biggest moron and the movie seems to flirt with the insidious idea that she might have invited her murder onto herself. First, she meets Glen in her neighbor’s driveway, having never seen him before, and invites him into her home and offers him a job, and all of this is miraculously before she even knows the man’s last name, an address, or references. He makes a shifty statement about past work experience being “here and there” and she hires him. The next time we see them together they’re already sleeping together. It feels like I was watching character assassinating propaganda, especially recalling O.J.’s crazed accusations of Nicole sleeping with every many she could find because, to him, she must be a whore. In one of the more wince-inducing moments, Nicole admits to her therapists that she misses the sex with her abusive ex-husband. Any feminism points the filmmakers thought they were providing by showcasing Nicole’s terror and resolve in starting a life away from O.J. just get sabotaged again and again by moments like this. Because Nicole isn’t a person to these filmmakers, she’s a marketable victim who was too stupid to understand how dangerous multiple men were.

There’s also a problem structurally with The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson because she discovers Glen’s unhinged side very quickly. There’s no prolonged buildup of piecing things together. There is half a movie left, which means the filmmakers have an awful lot of time to kill before the actual killings. There’s a drawn-out sequence where Nicole is shopping with the Kardashians (you better believe there are Kardashian kid cameos!) at a nearly empty mall and she sees Glen stalking her. The sequence just keeps going on and on until she’s now stalking him. It’s a sequence that fulfills little we didn’t already know about Glen as a dangerous man. This is further emphasized in unnecessary ways by showing him picking up a doomed woman at a dive bar (literally called “Sinners and Saints” – sigh) and suffocating her, setting her car on fire, and presumably leaving behind plenty of physical evidence like fingerprints. It’s a gratuitous sequence where we get to watch another woman get murdered before our special murder victim gets her showcase. There’s even a shockingly superfluous nightmare sequence that literally rips off the imagery from A Nightmare on Elm Street where Nicole is battling some invisible poltergeist that drags her up a wall and onto the ceiling. It’s filling time, which the movies does even after it finally meets its titular action. There’s a whole two minutes or so of watching a dog walker creep upon the Brentwood crime scene as if we already didn’t know what happened, so where is the suspense? Then the movie fills time even more blatantly by relying on a clip package of real-life TV news from the murders, the Bronco chase, the trial, O.J.’s acquittal, and then portions of his interview for “If I Did It.” It’s literally a clip show to get across that all-important 80-minute feature-length threshold. Watching this abysmal movie, it’s clear that the filmmakers had no real intention of presenting a story and were just presenting the most baseless historical “what if.”

The dialogue in this movie can be wretchedly obvious and trolling for forced profundity with heavily applied and snide dramatic irony. This occurred in the director’s previous film, using the audience’s knowledge of Sharon Tate’s eventual slaying to force a sense of literal and figurative premonition to use as dread. This was at its worse with her awful visions but it also translated to her many heavy-handed pontifications on whether she was fated. With this new film, Nicole is basically looking dead-eyed into the audience after every one of these lines. That includes an admission, “I worry he’s going to murder me and get away with it,” and that’s only five minutes into the movie. I would estimate twenty percent of Nicole’s dialogue in the movie is her contemplations that O.J. will be the literal death of her, like chiding a dismissive L.A.P.D. officer for eventual guilt about not intervening when he had an opportunity. These moments are meant to make Nicole Brown seem more tragic but why does she need any benefit of extra tragedy for empathy?

Look at this wig!

I chiefly pity Suvari (American Beauty). She likely thought she was doing the real Nicole Brown a service by portraying a woman who was trying to work up her courage to push back against her abuser. She probably thought these moments were humanizing Nicole, presenting a more recognizable face beyond the splashy tabloid headlines (see, she has difficulty working a home alarm system too!). I need to believe that Suvari felt she was doing some service because her name is listed as an executive producer, and I would hate to think she was onboard with the more wrongheaded and sleazy aspects of the film becoming a misguided reality. Suvari seems adrift for most of the movie, perhaps the weight of all that dramatic irony crushing her down. However, she doesn’t seem as adrift as Taryn Manning (Orange is the New Black) as a boozed-up cartoon of Nicole’s friend, Faye Resnick. She snorts cocaine. She tries to seduce Nicole at one point, referring to past trysts (more propaganda?). She has a remarkable helmet of a giant blonde wig that looks like it’s crushing her tiny neck. It’s a performance that seems too off-kilter that it almost reminded me of some of the acting I’ve witnessed in The Room. Then there’s Stahl (Sin City) who just acts like a sketchy guy from his first moment onscreen. It makes it hard to believe that Nicole would, after her interactions with O.J., so obliviously accept this new man into her home and into her bed. Then there’s Agnes Bruckner (Love and Chocolate) as a jaw-clenching Kris Kardashian, a character who probably should have just been removed entirely.

The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson might not be as offensively bad as The Haunting of Sharon Tate, but even that declaration is not exculpatory. This is still a terribly written, terribly directed, and terribly made movie based on a terrible premise. Even if the filmmakers wanted to tell a compelling alternate theory to the much-publicized Trial of the Century, it sure doesn’t look like they had any interest other than grabbing their own attention-seeking headlines. There is no thought put into any part of this movie outside of its outrageous premise. At least we’re spared having to relive Nicole’s bloody death through several gross fake-out premonitions like Sharon Tate. The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson wants to position its lead heroine as a tragic figure, but she was already a tragic figure, and it definitely doesn’t earn the artistic right to play Nicole’s real-life 911 calls where she frantically begs for help from her enraged husband. You don’t get to present a feature film that says O.J. didn’t do it and then play her real 911 calls of abuse from O.J. It’s a stark reminder of the resolute bad faith of the people involved in this lousy production. Beware famous dead celebrities, because even the grave can’t protect you from director Daniel Farrand’s gross revisionism for profit.

Nate’s Grade: D

Lucy in the Sky (2019)

I don’t really know what this movie was trying to say. I think co-writer/director Noah Hawley (TV’s Fargo, Legion) was better trying to humanize the story of Lisa Novak, the astronaut who drove 900 miles, while wearing diapers to skip bathroom breaks, to confront the current lover of an ex-boyfriend, all three NASA employees. It was a story so bizarre, so tabloid ready, that a big screen adaptation was inevitable. What I wasn’t expecting was an artist to take this and discard the attention-grabbing details and turn this into a ponderous existential meditation. Lucy (Natalie Portman) has recently returned from Earth and our big blue planet doesn’t feel the same after she’s touched the majesty of space. Her life seems small, meaningless, boring, and she can’t shake her terrestrial depression. She begins an affair with a co-worker (Jon Hamm) to feel that same special sensation again, but she’s chasing something uniquely elusive. Lucy in the Sky is structured like a meandering Terrence Malick movie was crossbred with a heavy-handed addiction melodrama. It’s not a good fit. The ever-changing aspect ratios are meant to convey her emotional state, but just when I thought I had a handle on how to decode them, Hawley would frustratingly break the rules with them. As far as I can tell, the wider ratio (during space) is meant to convey… good things, and the smaller, boxier ratios (Earthbound) are meant to convey… not good things. But then wide shots will be filmed in super widescreen and it throws away that interpretation. It’s an annoying visual tic in a movie that feels over-directed. The blunt characterization for Lucy fails to open her up beyond that of a self-destructive addict. She had a demanding mother (Ellen Burstyn), an existential crisis, and a boring husband (Dan Stevens), so does that explain her behavior? Portman commits to the madness and I give her credit, though her thick Texas accent made me rear back (it sounded like Reba McEntire). The movie is almost worth watching just for her game performance, kind of like last year’s similar artistic misfire, Vox Lux. Lucy is definitely unhinged by the time she’s making her fateful cross-state road trip. She mutters that women are regarded as “too emotional” as a common slight to sideline, but her behavior isn’t exactly dispelling this criticism. Maybe trying to turn “diaper astronaut love triangle” into a symbol for female discrimination wasn’t exactly the best call. Lucy in the Sky is an arty mess that is trying so hard to say something profound but loses the very appeal of its source material. Either you embrace “diaper astronaut love triangle” or you don’t.

Nate’s Grade: C

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

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+

Hustlers (2019)

Think of it as a feminist companion piece to The Wolf of Wall Street or The Big Short. Inspired by a true story, Hustlers follows a diverse group of strippers who wine and dine Wall Street middlemen and execs, feeding off the spoils of their feeding frenzy, and then eventually upping their game, drugging them and fleecing them for one wild night that they’ll be too embarrassed to report that next morning. The story grabs you early on and is stuffed full of interesting details about the ins and outs of the stripping industry as well as how to service and manipulate the wealthier men who frequent said clubs. Hustlers becomes a combination of a crime caper, a con artist thriller, and a class-conscious drama about the haves and have nots, but it really becomes a showcase for the talents of one Jennifer Lopez, a woman who does not seem at all close to her fifty years on this planet (her introduction is quite the jaw-dropper). Lopez plays Ramona, the alpha leader of the group, a loving single mom with a healthy distaste for the hand she’s been dealt. She is sensational and delivers the best performance of her long career. Even when she’s doing bad things, even when she’s taking bold risks, there is a moral center to that woman, an unbreakable heart for the people she chooses to let into her life, and it does not budge, which was a poignant note. In many ways she is more the main character than Constance Wu (Crazy Rich Asians), a figure that serves as more entry point than fully-fleshed out character. I enjoyed learning the various tricks of the trade writer/director Lorene Scarfaria (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) peppers throughout with her love of montage and stylish transitions, but it really picked up after the 2008 financial crash where the women cross over into direct criminality. At first they figure they’re just skipping ahead, drugging with MDMA rather than waiting for their marks to get drunk (“Drunk enough to order the bill but sober enough to sign the check,” Ramona cautions). Then things get escalated and sloppy and the women are in trouble. It’s a fun ride watching the ladies get theirs, and I was challenged to muster much of any sympathy for their Wall Street marks. Part of me wishes more women would be inspired by this movie and follow suit, fleecing the people who fleeced our economy. The movie rides that wave of the good times you know can’t last, prolonging the fall we’re all anticipating coming. The supporting characters can be a bit weak; several of the other girls involved in the scheme merit one note of description, and some of the humor feels a bit out of place, like a running joke where one of the women nervously vomits often (this is like her single character trait, and it’s weird). It’s also likely the stripper-centric movie with the least nudity I’ve ever seen, thanks to Scarfaria treating a sensational story with candor rather than exploitation. Hustlers is a glitzy drama that will entertain you with its flash and then surprise you with its edge. And all hail, Jennifer Lopez, ageless wonder and underrated actress getting her due.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Farewell (2019)

This was a wonderful movie that just warmed my heart while holding to a beautiful melancholy. That is such a rare combination, and at its heights, The Farewell made me think it could have been plucked from the halcyon days of 90s indie cinema. The strange-but-true story follows an extended Chinese-American family that discovers its beloved Nai Nai (grandmother) back in China has terminal cancer. The family has elected not to tell her the devastating news and will reunite under the auspices of a grandchild hastily getting married (they’ve dated for only 3 months). Our protagonist is Billie (Awkwafina), a struggling New Yorker who disagrees with her family’s deception. Her extended family is convinced she won’t be able to keep her emotions in check, and so every scene plays with a great deal of subtext, as just about every character holds the burden of keeping a secret that deeply pains them. It makes for some pretty emotional moments, as different characters hold more meaning to their words and would-be goodbyes, but the movie is ultimately rather uplifting and winning. The matriarch of all this attention, played by Shuzhen Zao, is a bossy, compassionate, and deeply lovable old woman who welcomes her family’s return. I smiled every time she affectionately referred to Billi as “stupid child” and after a while noticed my eyes were getting glassy. Awkwafini, in her first stab at dramatic acting, nicely sells her tumult with an understated grace. The characterization achieved by writer/director Lulu Wang (the real-life Billie) is generous and honest, providing worthwhile moments to the larger family and giving them perspectives so while there is conflict nothing ever gets too preachy or stagy. Speaking of that, Wang films many of her scenes with an almost static camera, allowing the scene to unfold in front of us as if we’ve dropped in on these people’s lives. The film is about 80% Chinese subtitles but the story is really universal and deserves to be seen and celebrated. The Farewell is a terrific antidote to the summer blockbuster season and it left me thrilled to find a small little movie that could remind you again of the powerful pleasures of simple, sharply written storytelling (also stay tuned for the twist ending of the year in the credits).

Nate’s Grade: A

Red Joan (2019)

Red Joan is inspired by a true story of an elderly British woman being outed in the 1980s for being a spy for the Russians and passing along British nuclear secrets. If the real story were as boring as what appears onscreen, I doubt anyone would care. Judi Dench plays the older Joan dealing with the public reckoning decades in the making and Sophie Cookson (Kingsmen) plays the young college grad in the 1940s who lands a top nuclear physicists job with the government and alongside a married man she falls for. Some friends who might not really be her friends snooker Joan into becoming a spy, and her rationale is that the world will be a safer place if other countries have the bomb other than simply America. Older Joan says history has proven her right and she takes partial credit for helping to ensure peace. First off, this logic seems faulty. If something is dangerous, I don’t know if it’s less dangerous if more people/countries have it (see: the firearm industry). Secondly, there were numerous incidents that almost brought the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. to mutually assured self-destruction including the Cuban Missile Crisis. The biggest problem with Red Joan is how shockingly boring it all is. A young woman pulled into espionage and treason, having to maintain her secrets while they eat away at her and she betrays her colleagues and loved ones, that’s the stuff of complex human drama, or at least it should be if the storytelling knows what it’s doing. The movie never seems to treat what she’s doing with great stakes. Here’s an example of how rushed and under developed the story can be: scene 1) Joan learns her co-worker doesn’t have a great marriage; scene 2) they complete a crossword together and he nudges closer; scene 3) they kiss and he declares his love for her. This sequence of events is portrayed during a travel montage or all things. The characters are so underwritten and their compromises and conflicts rarely feel real because of moments like this. The acting is generally good all around and I wish Cookson would get a starring vehicle worthy of her talents. The biggest mystery for me with Red Joan is that the story depicted onscreen is made up, diverging from the real events, so why didn’t they tell a better story with their freedom?

Nate’s Grade: C

The Front Runner (2018)

In 1987, former Colorado senator and governor Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) was the leading Democrat in primary polling and a sure bet to take on George H.W. Bush for the White House. In three weeks time, his campaign was in tatters and he folded. It all stems from a supposed affair he was conducting with Donna Rice (Sara Paxton). They deny anything but Gary acts like he has something to hide, evading the media’s questions about his marriage and his past history with infidelity. Enough time has passed in the political landscape to take a deeper dive into Gary Hart’s disintegration in the spotlight, and the moment serves a tipping point for changing media coverage. Journalists talk about the “old days” where candidate infidelity and ailments were just ignored as a gentleman’s agreement of sorts between the gatekeepers, but should they have? While a candidate’s martial relations are significantly less important than policy and governance, they do reflect character and what he or she (but, let’s face it, mostly he) acts with authority. Strangely, The Front Runner wants to paint the hungry journalists digging into Hart’s past as the real enemy, going above and beyond the bounds of ethics for crass sensationalism. This is directed and co-written by Jason Reitman (Tully, Up in the Air), a shrewd storyteller with a knack for human drama, which makes the “both sides are bad” equivocation all the more curious. Jackman is strong and has several scenes of righteous speeches talking about how he didn’t sign away his privacy, except when you run for president, you kind of do, and the American public deserve to know if their leaders abuse power. The movie favors long takes with a wide supporting cast of players that speak like they stepped out of an Aaron Sorkin workshop (an exchange celebrating the “integrity” of news anchors wearing bad suits feels ripped right from Sorkin’s unguarded typewriter). The film is nicely sympathetic to the “other woman” in this scenario and treats her like a human being with dimension. The PR recovery and shady deeds of Hart’s team reminded me of the Chappaquiddick, which placed an unfavorable scrutiny on Ted Kennedy and his team of political spin masters after his deadly car accident. It all makes for an entertaining movie with solid performances and interesting character shading, but its perspective is too wobbly, trying to lay the blame on everyone it can find.

Nate’s Grade: B

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