Jackie Robison, 42, World War II, and the battle against racism

The untimely and unfortunate death of Chadwick Boseman finally prompted me to watch his break out performance in the 2013 American drama, 42. The story, as the number implies, chronicles the role Jackie Robinson played in breaking the color barrier in major league baseball when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. But this movie is about more than major league baseball. It’s a chronicle of a pivotal moment in American history and race relations.

42 Is About More Than Baseball

42 is well scripted and tightly directed by Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River). Boseman’s performance is thoughtful, emotional, and intense as one would expect given the subject matter. At the time, African American ball players were relegated to the Negro leagues because racism prevented them from playing in the majors.

Importantly, baseball’s racism was not legally imposed. It was an informal rule that was widely accepted, practiced, and enforced. While Jim Crow laws made integration difficult since most training camps and several clubs played in the South, integration was possible.

Jackie Robinson was born in Cairo, Georgia, just over the Florida state border north of Tallahassee. But Robinson’s mother moved west to California after his father abandoned the family. Importantly, Robinson grew up in non-Jim Crow Southern California. While racism existed, the rigid rules and codes did not force the separation required by law and culture in the South.

Racism and the U.S. Military

Robinson eventually attended UCLA and became the first athlete to win varsity letters in four sports (basketball, football, track, and, of course, baseball). After UCLA, he worked briefly for a government funded youth program and then played semi-professional football in Hawai’i and California. Notably, these were integrated teams.

World War II interrupted his athletic career, and Robinson joined the U.S. Army. He started in a black cavalry unit, and became one of the few black soldiers to be accepted into Officer Candidate School. Commissioned as a lieutenant in 1943, Robinson was transferred to the first Black tank battalion, the 761st “Black Panthers”.

While he never made it to the battlefields, Robinson became well acquainted with the need to stand up for his civil and human rights. Like many other soldiers growing up in the non-Jim Crow north and west, he buckled under the social pressure, deferential expectations, and local codes that required strict subordination to whites. Sometimes at the penalty was death, as in the shooting of a black soldier by a white bus driver. (Who was then acquitted by an all white jury). Black soldiers were routinely harassed, bullied, and intimidated by citizens, law enforcement, and even white military police and soldiers within their own units. Rank didn’t matter.

When Lieutenant Robinson refused to move to the back of a bus to make way for civilians boarding in Fort Hood, Texas, he was detained, arrested and court martialed. The arrest occurred even though the bus line was commissioned by the U.S. Army as desegregated transportation to avoid southern harassment. Ultimately, Robinson was acquitted (by an all white panel of nine officers), but the delays meant he lost out on his chance to serve with his unit in Europe.

An excellent overview of Robinson’s arrest and court martial, as well as the heroic actions of this unit in Europe, are artfully chronicled in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s book (co-written with Anthony Walton), Brothers in Arms: The Epic Story fo the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII’s Forgotten Heroes.

Jackie Robinson and Racial Equality

The details of Robinson’s backstory in the Army and professional athletics prior to World War II are largely ignored in the movie. But they are consequential for the film and understanding Robinson’s legacy. While the movie 42 maintains the spirit of Robinson’s resolve, the movie departs in important ways to support the story in the film.

When Brooklyn Dodgers owner and manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) decides to sign black players in an effort to break the informal color barrier, his assistant manager and scout (Toby Huss) points out Robinson has a temper. He was court martialed for insubordination, he notes, although he was acquitted and received an honorable discharge. Rickey sees the incident as an advantage: Robinson has the fortitude to withstand the racism and pressure of being the first Black to play in the majors.

However, in a key plot point, Rickey confronts Robinson with the need to control his temper on and off the field. Any fights or hostility will doom the experiment in desegregation. Rickey, in essence, is lecturing Robinson on the importance of nonviolent resistance. Stay focused on the job on the field, he says, and they will accomplish the larger goals of desegregation. In real life, Robinson had already learned this lesson and his personality was well suited to withstanding this kind of pressure. In the movie, Robinson appears to be persuaded by Rickey as a mentor and signs the contract.

Desegregating More Than Major League Baseball

Any romantic notions of a non-racist North are quickly dispelled in 42, accurately. Rickey’s attempt to break the color barrier generated across the board resistance and hostility. Robinson’s presence at one point leads to a hotel refusing accommodations to the Dodgers. Robinson is assaulted with taunts from the stands, other players, and opposing coaches. Robinson must also grapple with racist revolts among teammates who refuse to play with a black player.

Rickey’s resolve doesn’t waver, although, in the movie, the tension pushes Robinson to a breaking point. Robinson did not break in real life, according to most accounts, but the event serves the story of the film and the spirit of Robinson’s trials if not historical fact.

The Bottom Line

Overall, the movie does an excellent job using contrasts between segregated and unsegregated regions of the country, rampant racism among players and fans despite stellar on-field performance, and the pressures of the business of baseball to force reformers to buckle under pressure to keep the major leagues white.

In addition to a tight script, the drama keeps audiences engaged and focused on the story. While Ford and Boseman received most of the accolades when the movie was released, excellent performances by Nicole Beharie as Rachel Isum Robinson, Chistopher Meloni as the gruff and impolitic manger and coach Leo Durocher, Andre Holland as black journalist Wendell Smith, and Lucas Black in a pivotal role as Pee Wee Reese, among others, keep the story and movie moving forward.

42 is more than a story about Jackie Robinson and desegregating major league baseball. It’s also a well told story about the contradictions, paradoxes, and inhumanity of racism at a critical period in the United States. The Post-World War II era would usher in the modern Civil Right Movement. Eventually these efforts would result in the dismantling of nearly 100 years of Jim Crow.

Another excellent movie exploring the nuances of America’s color line is Green Book. My review can be found here.

Lady Driver bolstered by wonder of dirt-track car racing

Streaming: Netflix

I couldn’t help thinking that if NASCAR made movies like Lady Driver the sport would be cultivating a whole new legion of young fans and drivers. Fortunately, independent film companies like ESX Entertainment and Forrest Films are diving into these inspirational stories. While Lady Driver has its flaws, for the most part the movie is fun family-friendly entertainment. 

The Story

Lady Driver tells the story of an angst-filled teenager, Ellie Lansing (Grace Van Dien). She’s bucking against her mother’s confining parenting in upper-crust Monterrey, California. Ellie is frustrated by her own interests being pushed aside — like getting her driver’s license — for family obligations and the ostracization she experiences at school for being different. Ellie is habitually late; she prefers her time in shop with the gearheads rather than regular academic classes. Fed up, Ellie runs away to search-out her estranged Uncle Tim (Sean Patrick Flanery) in northern California. 

Tim, who is a functional alcoholic, has been shunned by Jessie (Christina Moore). Jessie is rebuilding a life with her second husband (John Ducey), and their daughter (Ellie’s younger stepsister). Unfortunately, the audience is given little information about Ellie and Jessie’s past. We suspect her biological father’s death is implied. While Ellie sees Uncle Tim as an escape, the manner of her father’s death will turn out to be pivotal. 

Tim runs an auto-repair business. He begrudgingly acknowledges Ellie’s natural aptitude toward working on and understanding cars. More importantly, she discovers that Tim is a former race-car driver, like her father. The brothers ranked among the most successful drivers on the northern California dirt-track circuit. When Tim takes her to a track to watch her first race, Ellie is captivated by the sounds and culture. With her uncle’s reluctant support, she sets out to conquer the local dirt track.

The Art

Unfortunately, the movie suffers from several story structure and continuity issues. Ellie’s rebellion against her mother, for example, never quite rises to the level audiences (or parents) will believe she would run away. The stakes simply aren’t high enough. Isolating herself, leaving home to stay with a friend, slamming doors? Definitely. Leaving home to travel hundreds of miles in a beat-up car to stay with an uncle she doesn’t know? Highly unlikely. The dialogue also tends toward the predictable and derivative, relying on unimaginative formulas well trodden by the genre. This tendency is particularly acute when Ellie begins to spar with the good looking, arrogant, older teenage rival on the oval, Buck McReadie (David Gridley). 

The Bottom Line

Fortunately, Lady Driver is saved by an excellent cast, including a top-flight performance by Grace Van Dien. She conveys a wonder and excitement about dirt-track racing that is difficult to convey without actually being on the sidelines and watching the action unfold. (Note: I have attended several stock-car races and can attest to the thrill.) Solid editing keeps the film at a fast clip during the race sequences. The movie benefits from the experience of a bevy of acting veterans, including Flanery, Moore, Amanda Detmer (as Tim’s friend, Loretta), and Casper Van Dien (as Ellie’s father in flashbacks). 

I also greatly appreciated the focus on dirt-track racing rather than asphalt and pavement tracks. Dirt tracks are more common on the local and regional circuits. They are an unheralded but critical cog in race culture and a stepping stone toward national circuits. While NASCAR’s major series — Cup, Truck, and Xfinity — get the most press, the local tracks are the ones where the stars are born. Dirt-track racing, as Lady Driver shows, has a style, technique, and set of skills unique to its own, well suited for fans and drivers learning the ropes. 

In Conclusion

Overall, Lady Driver is an enjoyable, low-stakes movie fitting for a family friendly audience. With any luck, a new crop of young women might be inspired to take to the oval through Lady Driver or other movies like it. We need a few more to give the old boys club a real run for the checkered flag.

The Rhythm Section carried by strong performance from Blake Lively

Venue: Amazon Prime

The Rhythm Section aspires to be part of a new wave of thriller movies. Unfortunately, the movie falters despite having good “bones.” The film simply doesn’t find its footing as an action movie despite plenty of opportunities in tense relationships, unexpected plot points, and excellent acting. 

The story focuses on Stephanie (Blake Lively), a college-age woman whose entire immediate family is killed when their plane explodes. Stephanie missed the flight, and survivor’s guilt plunges her into a world of drug addiction and prostitution. When a freelance journalist (Raza Jaffrey) contacts her, she learns that the flight was a terrorist target. Her parents, brother, and sister were just “collateral damage.” 

As Stephanie learns more about the facts behind their deaths, revenge consumers her. When her journalist contact is killed, she tracks down Ian (Jude Law), a discredited MI6 agent living in Scotland. Despite misgivings, Ian is impressed by Stephanie’s grit and trains her to be an assassin. They commit to tracking down all the terrorists associated with the plane crash. Stephanie commits to “killing them all.” Violently. 

The movie is well produced. Fitting with the genre, the movie globe trots, touching down in places such as Scotland, London, Madrid, Tangier (Morocco), New York City, and Marseilles (France). Blake Lively provides depth in her role as Stephanie as she climbs from the London underworld to become a trained assassin. A fine cast that includes Sterling K. Brown as a “retired” CIA agent facilitates the intrigue as Stephanie tracks down each element of the terrorist plot. 

Still, The Rhythm Section falls flat. The time put into Stephanie’s inner turmoil is time taken away from the action of the film. For most viewers, Ian’s decision to take Stephanie — an underweight drug addict with a slight, unathletic build — under his wing will be a mystery. Indeed, Stephanie continually puts herself in jeopardy through missteps and hesitation, making her close escapes from what should be certain death formulaic plot points.

Nevertheless, a strong performance from Blake Lively carries the movie. Even though the movie misses an opportunity to redefine its genre, The Rhythm Section provides mild entertainment to those looking for a way to pass the time on a lazy weekend. 

Ford V Ferrari speeds to the Oscars on the intensity of racing and its rivalries

Ford V Ferrari burned rubber screeched into 2020 major awards season, nominated for a slew of categories. One of those categories for the 92nd Academy Awards is Best Picture. While the movie is very good, and definitely ranks among the best racing films made within the last several decades, it’s nomination for Best Picture is a bit of a surprise.

The story centers around the Ford Motor Company’s attempt to resurrect its brand by showing it could compete with Ferrari, the world’s most advanced, high-performance car manufacturer. The prospect is remote, although the company’s boss, Henry Ford, II (Tracy Letts), seems committed. He retains legendary race car driver and personality Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) to design and build the car. Unfortunately, a heart condition keeps Shelby out of the race car. In his place, Shelby coaxes the brilliant, caustic, and personally volatile Ken Miles (Christian Bale) to join forces with him. As Miles goes about alienating everyone he runs into, it’s up to Shelby to play the corporate politics and keep him on the team.

The setting for the ultimate showdown is the LeMans 24 hour race in France in 1966. The location is legendary in racing circles. The track is full of twists and turns. In other words, it’s an ideal setting for a slick, well edited movie like Ford V Ferrari.

The movie is well acted, anchored by authentic yeoman performances by Damon and Kelly. The supporting cast is also strong, ensuring that the film overall can showcase the talents of the two stars. Other characters don’t get the same latitude, defaulting into more two-dimensional roles. 

The plot is also predictable and straightforward. The story properly focuses on the dynamic between Shelby and Miles. While corporate politics plays an important role in the story, the script has little nuance or layer. The entire rivalry appears to be driven by the ego of Henry Ford as he responds to a personal insult thrown by Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone). Shallow business types more interested in show and marketing glitz insert themselves at key points at predictable points to keep the story moving. Historically, this story line does a disservice to Henry Ford II, who is recognized as a strong innovation-focused business leader and critical to Ford’s economic rebound after World War II. The movie is reduced to a simple formula of Shelby, Miles, and Ford’s personal quest to win LeMans.

Nevertheless, Ford V Ferrari is a story of an authentic rivalry and actual conflicts between colorful real-world legends. As a movie about racing and personalities, Ford V. Ferrari delivers. While its nomination as Best Picture is a bit surprising given the strength of other contenders in the field, the intensity and polish of the racing scenes buoyed by strong acting by Damon and  Bale give it a real shot of taking home the Oscar statuette for film editing, sound editing, and sound mixing.  

Ford V Ferrari has been nominated in the following categories for the 92nd Annual Academy Awards:

  • Best Picture
  • Film Editing
  • Sound Editing
  • Sound Mixing

The Two Popes rises on Oscar Worthy performances

Christians are likely to come away from The Two Popes with two reactions : The Catholic Church finally sold out its dogma, or the Church is finally finding its compass in a world wrought with change and conflict. The filmmakers clearly land on the side of a progressive Church, one that changes with the realities of contemporary times while trying to avoid compromising on its theology. But getting to this place at the end of this drama is not an easy journey.

The Two Popes is a strong, well executed drama that takes its subject and the Catholic Church seriously with Oscar worthy performances. Anthony Hopkins plays Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a doctrinal traditionalist, elected pope after the death of Pope John Paul II. In the Catholic Church, about 120 cardinals are selected from among more than 5,000 bishops. These cardinals have the responsibility for electing a new pope once the position becomes vacant. Bishops serve in a variety of leadership positions in the Church around the world, but only a few serve as cardinals. While some, including Ratzinger, are located in Rome, the vast majority serve dioceses and congregations around the globe. 

As a cardinal and bishop, Ratzinger is a strong proponent of taking the Church back to fundamentals. He argues that the weakening of doctrine is one of the primary reasons for the Catholic Church’s decline across the globe. In opposition to Ratzinger’s call are more progressive bishops who believe doctrine and Church policy need to be updated. Argentine Cardinal and Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) is among this group. Bergoglio is a Latin American priest noted more for his humility and devotion to the flock than a desire for power and authority.

The two cardinals are as different in temperament as they are in philosophies about the application of doctrine. Ratzinger believes the Church’s salvation will be through strong, disciplined leadership that ensures priests and congregations follow strict Catholic doctrine grounded in fundamentals. Bergoglio is more worldly, believing that Catholic teachings need to be updated to reflect the times and circumstances. Only by connecting to realities of Catholic followers to Catholic doctrine can the Church keep its legitimacy and grow.

Despite Bergoglio’s protests, a group of progressive cardinals support his election to become John Paul II’s successor. Ratzinger, however, wins out and becomes Pope Benedict XVI. Bergoglio is dismayed, but returns to his native Argentina. Ultimately, he decides to resign his position as archbishop. He no longer believes he is qualified to lead the church given its new direction. Bergoglio, however, cannot resign unless Pope Benedict XVI accepts his resignation. As he is about to leave for Rome to personally ask for his resignation, the pope invites him to the Vatican. 

Bergoglio becomes increasingly frustrated as Benedict seems to delay and avoid discussing his resignation without explanation or reason. What follows is a series of conversations about God, doctrine, and contemporary threats facing the Catholic Church. The dialogues are punctuated with conflict and humor, as the styles and personalities of the two church leaders search for some common path. Benedict holds his cards close to his chest, as if he is testing and probing Bergoglio. Bergoglio, for his part, simply wants to be out and return to the life of a humble priest.

Both Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Price give Oscar worthy performances. Adapted from a play by Anthony McCarten, The Two Popes is surprisingly engaging for a movie that would be just as effective as a stage play. The themes are highly relevant to the challenges currently facing the Catholic Church and how, if even possible, a two thousand year-old institution can adapt to contemporary times, attitudes, and values. Audiences, secular and religious, will learn a lot from the exchanges. They will likely come away with a much greater appreciation for the complexities faced by the Catholic Church, how experience grounds our individual understanding of spirituality, the motivations of those who lead the Church, and the challenges of reconciling religious dogma with a contemporary world view.

The Two Popes had a brief run in theaters in November 2019 and currently streams on Netflix. (I viewed the movie on Netflix in late December 2019.)

The Two Popes has been nominated for Academy Awards in the following categories:

  • Best Actor (Jonathan Pryce)
  • Best Supporting Actor (Anthony Hopkins)
  • Adapted Screenplay

Marriage Story wins with poignant realism and tight screenplay

Marriage Story is a poignant, grounded tale of a marriage in crisis and disintegration. Now streaming on Netflix, the screenplay by director (and producer) Noah Baumbach is tightly written, includes realistic dialogue, and driven by plot points most people who have experienced divorce will recognize. 

Marriage Story Benefits from Realism

The movie is notable for a number of reasons beyond is six nominations in major categories — the most of any film — at the 2020 Golden Globes. For one, Marriage Story is one of the few recent movies produced by Hollywood that aspires to true art while drawing exclusively on from the tension and conflict of everyday life. Baumbach builds the experiences of real world couples and marriage into the plot, and he keeps the story focused. The characters are real, not caricatures. Baumbach has shown enough drama exists in the divorce of two people who still care for each other and still love their child to drive a powerful movie. 

Trigger warning: For those who have gone through the emotional trauma of divorce, Baumbach’s movie may cut too close to the bone. The dialogue is realistic, the plot points draw on real decisions, fears, and trade-offs, and the emotionally soul-tearing effects of divorce are front and center.

Realistic Plot Drives a Realistic Story

In terms of plot, Charlie (Adam Driver) is a director in New York’s city’s avant-garde theater scene who is on the cusp of becoming nationally recognized for his work. Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), an actress, was born and bred in Los Angeles. She was a rising film star when she met Charlie, but still moved with him to New York City for his career. Her star power is one of the factors that helps Charlie get his theater company off the ground off Broadway. The cultural and artistic conflicts between movie-oriented Hollywood and theater-oriented New York is palpable, and a source of conflict within their marriage. Nicole still yearns to be in movies and be close to her LA-based mother and friends.

Charlie’s professional dedication has taken a toll after ten years of marriage, now complicated by their young son, Henry. They both deeply love Henry, although they have different approaches and attitudes toward parenting. They also agree to put the interests of their son first in their divorce, prompting them, unsuccessfully, to try mediation rather than engage the legal divorce process. This works, at first. But their hopes for an amicable settlement quickly begins to disintegrate despite the fact neither has substantial financial or physical assets. 

Marriage Story is notable for its particular take on a failing marriage. The divorce does not begin in epic or existential conflict. Rather, Marriage Story is about relational disintegration under the weight of the innocuous sounding “irreconcilable differences,” the peculiarities of state divorce laws, divorce law attorney tactics, and the inevitable suspicion and fear that accompanies the process of splitting up a household. 

Marriage Story Deserves the Accolades

Marriage Story also benefits from an outstanding supporting cast, including Laura Dern as Nicole’s LA-based divorce attorney, Julie Hagerty as Nicole supportive but conflicted mother, Ray Liota as an aggressive attorney Charlie considers to handle his case, and Alan Alda as an older realistic but compassionate divorce attorney who Charlie first engages to help him navigate the complexities of California’s divorce laws. 

Marriage Story led the 2020 Golden Globes with six nominations, with Laura Dern winning Best Supporting Actress in a Drama for her role as Nicole’s aggressive divorce attorney. The movie also was nominated for Best Film (Drama), Best Actress (Johansson), Best Actor (Driver), Best Screenplay (Baumbach), and Best Score (Randy Newman). Marriage story deserved all these nominations.

A Hidden Life is a majestic, artistically brilliant meditation on life, ethics, and spirituality

A Hidden Life is Incredibly moving drama about an Austrian conscientious objector during World War II. Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) is a farmer working the fields of St. Radegund, a tiny village on the hillsides of the Austrian Alps on the northern-most border with Germany (north of Salzburg).

On the eve of World War II, Franz and his wife, Fani (Valeri Pachner), hope they and their three young daughters can remain untouched by Hitler’s ambitions and Nazi thugs. But the village quickly falls in line with the Nazis. Austria was “annexed” by Germany in 1938, and their friends  and family believe Hitler has restored pride and sense of national identity.

Franz and Fani resist the calls to fall in line. Franz sees the brutality of Hitler’s war, and his Catholic beliefs and conscience lead him to resist. Their friends and family put enormous pressure on them to accept and support the Nazi regime. Their family is increasingly ostracized in the village. But Franz continues to resist. When he is conscripted into the Germany Army, Franz and Fani must grapple the prospects of an inevitable execution for resistance to the Nazi regime. 

American writer and director Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life) has crafted a brilliant, subtle, and deeply spiritual story. The vistas of the countryside and mountains transcend their beauty to help tell the story of a conscientious objector trying to reconcile his quest for inner and familial peace in a violent, brutish, and unforgiving time. The attention to detail, mood, and context bring a texture to the movie that will fully immerse audiences. 

Using minimalist dialogue, Malick convey’s story is conveys the Jägerstätter family story through expression, action, and human connections. The visuals and structure of the scenes convey mood, meaning and plot. Narrations of letters sent between Franz and Fani supplement the action and the dialogue. Notably, working with a German and Austrian cast, Malick has shunned subtitles even as the movie alternates between English and German. Yet, non-German speakers will not struggle to understand the meaning of the German dialogue, its implications for Franz’s decisions, or the intent of the actors.

Artistically breathtaking, A Hidden Life is a magnificent movie about real-life hero and martyr. Prepare to be immersed in a three hour meditation on family, ethics, and spirituality. 

Franz Jägerstätter was executed as a conscientious objector, martyred by the Catholic Church, and ultimately beatified by Pope Benedict the XVI in 2007. 

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker provides satisfying bookend to the original saga

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is a much better movie than many critics say. While not a great film, the movie successfully bookends the series started by George Lucas in the 1970s.

Director J.J. Abrams brings a pace to the film that at times seems disjointed, but not altogether haphazard. It’s more like the first half of the movie is speed skipping from story line to story line. But the story comes together and ties loose ends up in ways consistent with the trajectory of the characters and main themes. Most Star Wars fans should find this a satisfying experience. 

The early story jumping is a bit jarring. Nevertheless, Abrams is clearly trying to pull audiences together onto one story line by drawing on different threads left over from earlier movies. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has consolidated his hold on the empire, known as the First Order. The resistance has been defeated, but still limps along in hiding as it tries to regroup. General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) continues to train Rey (Daisy Ridley), the last of the jedi. But events pull Rey away from her training as the necessity of confronting the First Order and Ren becomes overwhelming.

Despite the hectic pace, the plot points become necessary dots that connect familiar story lines. Most viewers can probably stay with the pace. As the movie slows down, Abrams brings more clarity to the movie and its story lines as begins to focus more on the characters and their relationships. Even the bit parts by older characters — most notably Luke (Mark Hamill), Han Solo (Harrison Ford), and Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) — are weaved into the arc of the story reasonably well. 

Some critics see the abundance of characters, new and old, as well as the frenetic pace as a filmmaking flaw. To some extent, they have a point. The character arcs for the newer characters Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) are notably thin. Starfighter mechanic Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) is elevated to pilot, but her role is little more than a cameo. 

The pacing, however, is intentional and prepares the audience for the final third of the movie which carries the weight of the story. We find out what the relationship between Ren and Rey really is all about, and the supposedly dead Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) has a nasty surprise in store for our heroes and the resistance. A few interesting characters are introduced, even if they play subordinate roles, which mixes up the story a bit. 

The Rise of Skywalker is a film made for the big screen, and the producers leveraged every element of special effects they could in the final episode. Greatness may be an unrealistic expectation for these movies given the unevenness of The Rise of Skywalker’s predecessors in the canon. But Abrams has done a yeoman’s job of telling a story to reach the core Star Wars base. While The Rise of Skywalker my bookend the original nine episode Skywalker saga, rest assured more Star Wars movies will be speed skipping into future theaters even if they are not at light speed.

Clint Eastwood in top form with Richard Jewell movie

The debut of Clint Eastwood’s newest movie, Richard Jewell, has been marked by controversy. Ironically, this controversy is not focused on the quality of the movie itself. On the contrary, Richard Jewell shows why Eastwood is a master craftsman of modern cinema. Eastwood has given life to a story about an unremarkable person (Jewell) who was put in a remarkable position by doing nothing more than being the hero he authentically aspired to be. 

Story background

Richard Jewell was the private security guard who discovered the pipe bomb that killed one and injured 111 during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. (Eric Rudolph later arrested for abortion clinic bombings in 2003 and confessed the the Olympic Park bombing in a statement in 2005.)  Jewell was a former cop with a checkered but not criminal past, with professional troubles rooted in the misdirected self-righteousness that sometimes comes with imposing a strict personal moral code on others. While working as a college campus security guard, he pulled over people he suspected of drinking while driving, resulting in a charge of impersonating a police officer. He also received complaints from students who objected to the college’s no alcohol policy which Jewell strictly enforced. His inability to keep a steady job meant that he lived on the economic margins of society in an apartment rented by his mother, Barbara.

The movie, directed by Eastwood and based on a screenplay written by Billy Ray (Hunger Games, Captain Phillips, Terminator: Dark Fate), follows Jewell’s personal descent into hell when he is publicly tagged as the prime suspect in the bombing. Working off a vague profile of previous bombing and arson arrests, the FBI targets Jewell because he was a loner, aspired to be taken seriously in law enforcement, and believed he wanted the public notoriety of being a hero. For 88 days, the media vilified Jewell as the FBI and state police tried, and failed, to identify the Olympic Park bomber. The press jumped the gun based on a lead secured by hard-driving and ambitious Atlanta crime reporter Kathy Scruggs. 

But is the movie any good?

In Richard Jewell, Clint Eastwood demonstrates his mastery of his craft. The movie’s pace engages the audience from beginning to end even though Jewell’s personality is low-key and understated. Eastwood carefully builds the story around Jewell’s character, both his virtues and his flaws. Indeed, it’s Jewell’s flaws that make him seem most sympathetic — he wants to do the right thing, and does, but his personality makes it difficult for him to interact smoothly with others. Overweight and out of shape, others around him are dismissive of his aspirations and abilities. 

Most impressive in Richard Jewell, however, are the performances (another tribute to Eastwood as director). They are uniformly stellar and nuanced. Paul Walter Hauser (BlacKkKlansman, I, Tonya) plays Jewell with compassion, subtlety, and understanding. Easy to dismiss and trivialize because of his soft spoken demeanor, we see Jewell slowly engage his understated intelligence, common sense, and resolve as he becomes jaded by the FBI’s dubious investigative tactics. Kathy Bates (Misery, Fried Green Tomatoes, About Schmidt) provides an Oscar worthy performance as Jewell’s mother Barbara who is caught up and overwhelmed by the maelstrom of media attention. Sam Rockwell’s (Frost/Nixon, Vice, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) turn as Jewell’s reluctant attorney (Watson Bryant) adds an important edge to the story that is both advocate and foil for Jewell as his good-natured instincts lead him into traps. John Hamm (Mad Men, Beirut, Baby Driver) shows why he is establishing himself as one of Hollywood’s leading actors in his role as lead FBI investigator Tom Shaw (a character that is a combination of several agents engaged in the investigation). Olivia Wilde (Booksmart, Tron: Legacy, Drinking Buddies) plays the troubled, tenacious, “work hard play hard” reporter Kathy Scruggs with nuance and depth. 

Richard Jewell is more than an excellent example of filmmaking. It’s also one of the few movies that takes an honest look at the human implications of a public rush to judgement that unfairly maligns innocents. In fact, the injustice was perpetrated by the federal government and the media — sometimes referred to as the “fourth estate” — may play into the anti-authority cynicism of libertarians and conservatives, but confronting the excesses in both institutions is critical to a well-functioning democracy. Narrative film, when done well, helps provide this balance.

Why the controversy?

The controversy over the film was apparently hatched by the very media that ignited the firestorm that under girds the movie’s main theme — a public’s rush to judgement. In the case of the movie Richard Jewell, the media is now claiming a foul by Eastwood for allegedly misrepresenting the very reporter (Scruggs) who everyone (including the media) agrees was at the center of the controversy.

While many in the media (and many movie critics) believe Eastwood (and by extension Ray) unfairly maligns Scruggs (who died in 2001 from an unintentional drug overdose), the director and screenwriter are well within artistic conventions. Directors, producers, and screenwriters often modify characters and plot points to fill the dramatic needs of their film.

Unfortunately, in order to avoid significant plot spoilers, this issue will be taken up in much more depth in a subsequent post. (Hint: Eastwood, Ray, and the actors should be crying foul on their media critics.)

In the meantime, as a narrative drama, Richard Jewell is timely, relevant, and well worth the time spent in the movie theater.

Knives Out mystery entertains with excellent acting and a complex plot

Knives Out is a funny, well produced, and entertaining mystery comedy. The movie succeeds, in part, because it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

When mystery writer and Thrombey family patriarch (Christopher Plummer) is found dead with his throat cut, local police think suicide. But world-renowned private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) believes foul play is involved, and the suspects multiply quickly. Everyone has a secret, and their entitled boorish behavior is grating, complicating the investigation. But no one seems to have a motive for murder either. Blanc’s reasons for being engaged in the case are as mysterious as the complicated web of relationships, loyalties, and insecurities that keep this movie running at a quick clip. 

At the center of the mystery is Thrombey’s nurse, Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), whose Latin ethnic heritage is played for comic and dramatic effect throughout the movie. As Thrombey’s primary caregiver, she is also a suspect. Ana de Armas plays the role to the hilt, keeping audiences guessing on just how involved — and intentional — her actions were leading up to Thrombey’s death. 

Writer-Director Rian Johnson does an excellent job managing a well-known cast in a complex plot in “Knives Out.” Among the actors appearing in critical roles are Jamie Lee Curtis as Linda, Thrombey’s daughter and self-made millionaire, Don Johnson as Linda’s wife, Michael Shannon as ne’er do well son who also controls Thrombey’s lucrative publishing empire, and Toni Collette as the widow of Thrombey’s son, and Chris Evans as the entitled grandson who loves to poke and prod his family into arguments.

Those looking for a more modern and updated Agatha Christie type mystery will enjoy Knives Out. Superb acting and attention to detail allow this “who done it” to rise above mediocrity. While the movie provides lessons about humility, independent, and personal responsibility, Rian Johnson doesn’t let the movie get bogged down in too much moralizing. The bratty adult behavior does enough on its own.