Category Archives: Films

Quick Links: Just Mercy, Brave New World, The Dawn Patrol (1938), Created Equal, and The Stand at Paxton County

Alas, I have neglected to link to several movie reviews that were posted at the Independent Institute. Here are quick hits and links to five recent reviews. They represent a smorgasbord of styles, themes, and visuals.

Brave New World

Aldous Huxley’s dystopian science fiction classic gets a modern makeover in Brave New World. A nine-part limited series on the Peacock network, the series stays true to one of the most important themes of the novel: What does it mean to be happy? But fans of the novel are unlikely to be fully satisfied. One season of a TV series simply can’t do full justice to the story’s layers and complexity. Nevertheless,

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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

Well scripted and tightly directed by Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River), 42 features a thoughtful, emotional, and intense performance by Boseman.

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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. 

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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.” 

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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.

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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. 

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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. 

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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.