Short takes: Richard Jewell, Dark Waters & A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

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Richard Jewell- Clint Eastwood’s latest, about the security guard caught up in the Centennial Park bombing during the 1996 summer Olympics in Atlanta, is infuriating on several levels. It is a perfect fit for late-period Eastwood, a study of a man who performed an act of everyday heroism only to wind up entangled in sinister, complex bureaucracies. Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) was an AT&T security guard who was hailed as a hero after helping clear people away from the bomb, only to then be vilified after it leaked that he was being investigated by the FBI as a prime suspect in planting the bomb.

The Jewell of Eastwood’s film is reverent of law enforcement to an increasingly uncomfortable degree, and Hauser is devastating when conveying the conflicting emotions at play as his character tries to be deferential to the authorities as they openly mock and try to lock him up. Equally devastating is Kathy Bates as Jewell’s mother Bobi; she is great at showing how uncomfortable and horrified the character is with the intrusiveness of the investigation and the media spectacle.

Richard Jewell has generated quite a bit of controversy for its portrayal of Kathy Scruggs, the late Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter who broke the story about Jewell being a focus of the FBI investigation into the bombing. Olivia Wilde gives an energetic, determined performance as Scruggs, but the role is incredibly poorly written and falls prey to an unsettling trope about on-screen female journalists sleeping with their sources. As a study of a man in the claustrophobic death grip of weaponized governmental institutions, Richard Jewell is exceedingly effective. When it ventures outside of that story, though, it is decidedly weaker. Grade: C+

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REVIEW: Joker

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Joker
Directed by: Todd Phillips
Written by: Todd Phillips and Scott Silver
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, and Frances Conroy

The most interesting thing about Joker is the built-in audience history its main actors, Joaquin Phoenix and Robert De Niro, bring to their respective roles. Director Todd Phillips’ R-rated origin story of the anarchic clown who torments Batman culminates in a late night talk show appearance featuring the two. Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a party clown turned unstable killer, goes on the show after video of his disastrous stand-up comedy performance was mocked by the host, Murray Franken (De Niro).

During this scene, it was impossible not to think about Phoenix’s notoriously awkward 2009 appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman. I remember this cringe-worthy I’m Still Here-era interview defining my perception of the actor until I saw him a few years later in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, which remains one of the greatest performances of the decade.

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Short takes: Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood & The Lion King

Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood — The clock is ticking for Quentin Tarantino. His latest film, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, is expressly billed as his ninth. For years, he has insisted that he will quit filmmaking after 10. ” I just think I’ve given all I have to give to movies,” he told GQ Australia.

If that’s true, and this latest outing really is his penultimate effort, that’s too bad. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood may be his most relaxed and confident movie, luxuriating in its immaculate recreation of L.A. circa 1969 as seen from the vantage point of various people inside, outside and somewhere on the periphery of show business. Focusing primarily on the friendship between the borderline-washed-up actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman Cliff (Brad Pitt), the movie follows them through awkward dinner meetings, bungled set visits and drunken nights out (and in).

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Short takes: Support the Girls, Madeline’s Madeline, Mission: Impossible- Fallout & Searching

Support the Girls — Director Andrew Bujalski finds the perfect encapsulation of his vision of modern American capitalism in Double Whammies, the Hooters knockoff sports bar where much of his latest film, Support the Girls, takes place. The restaurant operates on bizarrely specific codes built on the unspoken transaction between its jean shorts and tight t-shirt wearing female wait staff and its horny (mostly) male clientele. Bujalski and his ensemble are astute observers of workplace behavior, notably the glimpses of personality that bleed through the faces the characters try to wear at work. Professionalism at Double Whammies means a constant smile, and a tiptoe up to a sexual boundary with customers that becomes awkward and uncomfortable very quickly.

That’s where Lisa (Regina Hall) comes in. Lisa is a compassionate, intuitive general manager, tasked with passing down the vision of the restaurant owner to the staff while also mediating conflicts between them and the sometimes insulting, sometimes worse customers. One of the many pleasures of Support the Girls is in how Bujalski and Hall show the toll patrolling that managerial tightrope takes on Lisa. Much of the movie is focused on a single day, following her on a series of menial tasks that she nevertheless executes with great purpose. Her job is a lonely one; she has to be friendly but not too friendly, stern but not too stern with her staff and customers. The exhaustion seems to be catching up to her, as evidenced by the way it washes over Hall’s face before she snaps out of it and onto the next task. Double Whammies doesn’t deserve someone like Lisa; in fact Bujalski suggests the restaurant and its customers don’t deserve many of its employees, either. Support the Girls finds its humor and quite a bit of emotional resonance in the matter-of-fact exploration of the everyday disconnect between how the employees interact with each other, and how they are trained to interact with customers. Grade: B+ 

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REVIEW: Unfriended: Dark Web

Unfriended: Dark Web
Directed by: Stephen Susco
Written by: Stephen Susco
Starring: Colin Woodell, Rebecca Rittenhouse, Betty Gabriel and Andrew Lees

Note: Unfriended: Dark Web has two possible endings. This is a review of ‘Ending B,’ with limited spoilers.  

I consider Leo Gabriadze’s Unfriended one of the defining horror films of this decade, a ruthless slasher that unfolds entirely on the laptop screen of its protagonist, a high school-aged woman named Blair. What could so easily have been a gimmick opens up an expansive realm of digital storytelling tools, focusing on character development and psychology through what Blair types, deletes and rewrites, watches on YouTube and searches for on the internet. This is further deepened by what she reveals in real time in a video chat with five other friends (one of whom is her boyfriend) and what she says in one-on-one typed conversations with others.

While all of this is going on, a mysterious newcomer pops into their chat with just a default blue Skype silhouette instead of a video stream. The group’s attempts to kick this person out and figure out what they want yields to a series of sinister and even deadly games that weaponizes each teen’s most guarded secrets against them and lays bare their most embarrassing mistakes in an effort to make them turn on each other. The movie taps into a true horror of the digital age: the endless documentation and permanence of nearly every facet of a person’s life.

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Short takes: Avengers: Infinity War & You Were Never Really Here

Avengers: Infinity War — My distaste for the third Avengers film is due in part to my overall fatigue with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Since 2008’s Iron Man, the MCU has become an ubiquitous presence at the movies. Over the last decade, we’ve seen at least one, and often more, of these movies almost every year. They built toward 2012’s The Avengers, uniting the core characters of the previous movies (if you’re not familiar with them at this point, congratulations) for a city-destroying epic. Then they continued building (and destroying), with individual installments culminating in another Avengers film in 2015.

These movies are often exhausting in their mediocrity; generically constructed, often interchangeable battle sequences are peppered throughout blandly sinister attempts to destroy the world. The best movies in the MCU (Ant-Man, Black Panther, the second installments of Captain America and Guardians of the Galaxy) are often the ones that have narratives that hone in on building a specific cinematic world rather than a universe. Directorial personality doesn’t hurt, either.

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REVIEW: Call Me by Your Name

Call Me by Your Name
Directed by: Luca Guadagnino
Written by: James Ivory (screenplay), André Aciman (novel)
Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar

Not everyone gets a young summer romance. Sometimes you look back a month, a year, a decade later and realize that you had one, and it was perfect, or as perfect as it could have been. When it’s over you might wonder why you wasted so much time fumbling around, doing an awkward dance around what you wanted to say or do. That dance is part of the beauty of it, though. If you’d been more practiced, more put together and guarded, it might not have happened at all.

It happens for Elio (Timothée Chalamet), a 17-year-old boy living with his parents at a sun-drenched villa “somewhere in Northern Italy” in 1983. It’s the kind of place where people come and go as they please; his parents always have different guests for dinner. Elio spends his days transcribing music, reading and flirting with girls. He’s a mass of contradictions, as teenagers tend to be; polite but sometimes condescending, hesitant with bursts of confidence. Chalamet imbues him with a lanky restlessness. It comes out when he plays the piano, or stalks the edges of the many different social gatherings.

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REVIEW: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi
Directed by: Rian Johnson
Written by: Rian Johnson (screenplay), George Lucas (characters)
Starring: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Mark Hamill and John Boyega

Rian Johnson takes giant, often messy leaps in The Last Jedi, the eighth episode of Star Wars and the second in the (first) post-Disney trilogy. His take feels much more sporadic than the cautious nostalgia trip J.J. Abrams rendered in 2015’s The Force Awakens. It has higher highs and lower lows, hopping from its disparate plot lines with an often jarring inconsistency. While it has some of the series’ strongest set pieces, its clumsy narrative rhythm doesn’t allow it to breathe. As a result, its moments of visual splendor are sometimes lessened or cut short by sloppy pacing.

(No major spoilers, but the basic plot set-up is discussed ahead)

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Short takes: Blade Runner 2049, Happy Death Day & Brawl in Cell Block 99

Blade Runner 2049 —  It would have been interesting to see what Ridley Scott did with Blade Runner 2049. He has had mixed results with expanding the mythology of the Alien films, though having them stacked up against his near-perfect original almost seems unfair. The way he has deepened the mythology, though, by focusing on the android characters, would make his updated take on the world of Blade Runner fascinating. Comparisons between Blade Runner 2049 and the original don’t hurt the quality of either movie, though that could be because I don’t hold the 1982 film in as high regard as some of Scott’s others.

The Blade Runner universe, which focuses on the “retiring” (killing) of human-made androids called replicants, is also a good fit for Denis Villeneuve. His 35-year-later sequel focuses on Los Angeles Police Officer K (Ryan Gosling), who is tasked with hunting down older model replicants, the ones who can disobey their programming and grow to have independent thoughts. His initial retirement of a replicant who has been hiding out on a farm for 20 years leads him down a rabbit hole that challenges his perceptions of what he does and blows open much of the debate that fueled the original movie. How human are the replicants? And how much do humans ignore that to get rid of the ones labeled as rogue?

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REVIEW: mother!

mother!
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Written by: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer

It’s best to go into mother! knowing nothing about it, though if someone spoils it for you you might not believe them. (I’ll do my best not to spoil any major plot points from here on out, but you might want to stop until after you see the movie). Darren Aronofsky’s psychodrama plums the self-lacerating depths of being married to a hopeless narcissist, a popular one at that. His portrait of marriage is ruthlessly calculated, pinpointing the tremors in a woman’s face with every small betrayal by her husband. A series of disruptions to their everyday lives begins as a nervous twitch before careening over the edge of sanity into an abyss of blood and fire.

The couple at the center of the movie (played by Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem), live in an isolated mansion, one too far removed from society for cell phone service but not for a landline. The woman (none of the characters are named) spends the days remodeling the house after it was nearly destroyed in a fire. Her husband is a writer supposedly crippled by writer’s block.  He often fills his time tucked away in a study gazing at odd knick knacks, like a mysterious gem he keeps on a pedestal and protects like he’s Gollum.  Sometimes he appears to just wonder off into the neighboring woods. I got the sense when the movie started that she wakes up almost every morning to an empty bed and plays a slightly sad game of hide and seek.

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