Richard Jewell (B). This is a solid, interesting little movie about a real-life event that I only dimly remember. A nail-bomb exploded in downtown Atlanta while that city was hosting the 1996 Olympics, killing one person and injuring over 100 (per wikipedia). According to the movie, the federal criminal investigation turned up no real leads, and the FBI decided to focus on Richard Jewell, the security guard who discovered the bomb before it exploded and seemingly saved lots of lives by alerting law enforcement and helping evacuate the area. (The actual bomber was identified and apprehended only years later.) Director Clint Eastwood (Jersey Boys) portrays Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser, I, Tonya) as a real odd duck—hugely overweight, socially inept, living with his mother (Kathy Bates, Midnight in Paris), and yearning to be a real policeman. Olivia Wilde (Drinking Buddies) is an unscrupulous reporter dying for a scoop after the explosion, and Jon Hamm (Bridesmaids) is the integrity-challenged FBI agent who tips her off that Jewell is a person of interest. When she breaks the story, Jewell goes from hero to presumed villain in no time flat, and he turns to the only lawyer he knows, a solo practitioner played by Sam Rockwell (The Way Way Back), to help him fight back. Hauser and Rockwell turn in fine performances, and the movie vividly demonstrates how the combined power of the government and the media can unjustly destroy an ordinary guy’s life and reputation (and really upset his mama).
David Crosby: Remember My Name (B). I caught this new documentary and learned a few things about music legend David Crosby, who is somehow still alive and making music at 76 despite doing an astonishing amount of drugs up into at least the 1980s. For example, his father was Floyd Crosby, a photographer who won a Golden Globe for cinematography for High Noon. He was a founding member of The Byrds, which I should have known but don’t think I did. He didn’t like The Doors because Jim Morrison was rude to him once. And none of the other members of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young are on speaking terms with him. The film does a good job of conveying the trippy music scene of the 60s and 70s. But it left me wanting to know more about Crosby’s personal life. Like, what happened to his brother, who is mentioned as also being into music when they were kids? And I think he mentioned in passing that he’s not on speaking terms with his daughter. What’s the story there? But it wasn’t bad, and I appreciated the efficient 95-minute run time.
Funny Girl (B). I was back at the Magnolia Theater this past Tuesday night for The Big Movie — the 1968 musical that was Barbra Streisand’s first movie role. In fact, I think this is only the second Streisand movie I have ever seen, the first being What’s Up, Doc?, which I saw on network TV a couple of times when I was a kid. Anyhoo, Funny Girl is a biopic about real life entertainer Fanny Brice, who performed in Ziegfeld’s Follies in the early 20th century. Streisand turns in a rip-roaring performance as Brice and tied with Katharine Hepburn for the best-actress Oscar™. Omar Sharif (Dr. Zhivago) co-stars as the suave gambler who sweeps her off her feet. It was an entertaining movie, but not quite top tier in my book. It’s two and a half hours long, which is kind of long but not long enough to justify the 15-minute intermission we were forced to sit through! Anyway, I say it’s worth seeing if you like musicals.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (B). Well, I’m trying to get back into the swing of regular moviegoing, so I decided to see if the Magnolia Theater is still running its classic-movie series on Tuesday nights. Lo, it is, and I caught this 1969 Western this past Tuesday. I had never seen it before and still don’t quite know what to make of it. It stars Paul Newman (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) and Robert Redford (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) as the outlaws of the film’s title, and as best I can tell from extensive Wikipedia research the movie is actually fairly true to history. It’s the late 1890s, and Butch, the Kid, and their Hole in the Wall gang are making a living robbing banks and trains—until they irritate some big plutocrat and he hires a very dangerous posse to bring them to justice. So, in the interest of self-preservation, they make some unusual career choices after that. Although IMDB.com categorizes the film as “Biography, Crime, Drama,” it has a strong comedic element, with Newman providing lots of amusing dialogue, Redford being amusingly laconic, and an oddly jaunty soundtrack playing in the background. (“Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” won an Oscar.) And yet, there is quite a bit of shooting and killing, albeit with very little blood visible. Katharine Ross of The Graduate fame drops in for a while as the Kid’s love interest, but Butch shows more interest in her than the Kid ever does, and really this movie is a bromance between Butch and the Kid from start to finish.
Anyway, the film held my interest, but I still think it’s kind of an odd bird. It’s #73 on the American Film Institute’s 2007 list of the 100 greatest American movies, so I guess it’s a classic.
The Greatest Showman (B). This musical has done only so-so with the critics (Metacritic.com score 45/100 last time I checked), but I must say that I was entertained. The versatile and (to me) eminently likable Hugh Jackman (Logan) stars as P.T. Barnum in a film that is apparently very loosely based on the real Barnum’s life. It is exceptionally sentimental, setting up all sorts of underdogs for us to root for—the impoverished child Barnum in love with the daughter of a rich meanie, the slightly less impoverished adult Barnum hatching his first scheme to entertain the masses, the gaggle of differently abled people (unkindly called “freaks” by some characters) Barnum recruits for his show, and even an inter-racial potential couple. There are lots of songs, and I must say they mostly sounded kind of the same to me. And the big song-and-dance numbers featuring Barnum’s performers resemble the big song-and-dance numbers you might see on “Dancing with the Stars,” and the lights and noise pretty well bludgeon you into submission. Michelle Williams (Oz the Great and Powerful) isn’t given much to do as Barnum’s wife, but Zac Efron (Neighbors) and the formerly unknown to me Zendaya (Spider-Man: Homecoming) have nice supporting roles and a nice musical number together. If you don’t mind a little sap and a little schmaltz, I say give The Greatest Showman a chance.
The Disaster Artist (B+). So, back in 2003, an odd and mysterious fellow named Tommy Wiseau wrote, directed, starred in, and bankrolled a very odd movie called The Room. It was a laughably terrible melodrama and should never have been heard from again. But, somehow, it became a midnight-movie cult classic. I even saw it in a Rifftrax live show back in 2015, although I apparently failed to review it for this site. The Room really is jaw-droppingly bad.
Now James Franco (Oz the Great and Powerful) directs and stars in this new movie about Wiseau and the making of The Room. I thought it was very funny, all the more so because it is (based on) a true story. Franco disappears into the Wiseau role, with his weird European accent, strange awkwardness, and apparently bottomless bank account. We see Wiseau primarily through the eyes of his best friend Greg (Dave Franco, Nerve), a wannabe actor who puts up with Wiseau’s weirdness and accidentally inspires him to create The Room. A remarkable list of people signed on for cameos or roles that were barely more than cameos, including: Alison Brie (TV’s Community), Seth Rogen (Knocked Up), Josh Hutcherson (The Hunger Games), Zac Efron (High School Musical 3), Sharon Stone (Total Recall), Melanie Griffith (Working Girl), and Judd Apatow (director, The 40-Year-Old Virgin). Is the movie just a cruel joke as Wiseau’s expense? I don’t know. I’ve read that he approves of the movie, and IMDB says he even had a cameo in it that I missed. In any event, The Room has supposedly made him a lot of movie over the last 15 years, so I guess he’s doing all right. I thought the movie was a hoot.
Tom Hanks embodies Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger in much the way he became Walt Disney. Hanks and Aaron Eckhart (The Dark Knight) as co-pilot Skyles are good partners in this movie. Eastwood does not develop any of the other characters and did not use Laura Linney’s talent–as Sully’s wife, she is seen mostly tearful and on the phone. Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad), as one of the NTSB investigators, is also pretty one dimensional. The movie tells a story we know and still manages to create drama and deliver a hero. Be sure to stay for the credits (surely this goes without saying).
Genius (B). This movie isn’t doing too well with the critics (current score of 56 over at metacritic.com) but I think they are somehow overlooking the fact that Nicole Kidman (Dead Calm) is in the movie. Just kidding! Anyhoo, perhaps my low expectations led me to enjoy it more than I otherwise would have. It’s a biopic about editor Max Perkins (Colin Firth, The King’s Speech) and novelist Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow). Back around the year 1929, Wolfe was a manic would-be writer out of North Carolina with a married mistress (played by Kidman), and Perkins was a buttoned-down family man with five daughters. The movie basically just tells the story of their sometimes-difficult relationship as Perkins shaped Wolfe’s thousands of pages into manageable novels that met mainstream and critical success. Other authors that Perkins edited also pop up, like a washed-up F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce, Memento) and a macho Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West, 300). And the always-welcome Laura Linney (Mr. Holmes) has a small part as Mrs. Perkins. I thought it wasn’t a bad movie. It may have helped that I had actually read one of Wolfe’s novels, Look Homeward, Angel; you can read my review here and see if it sounds like your cup of tea.
Bonnie and Clyde (B+). I recently got to see a special screening of this 1967 release, directed by Arthur Penn (The Miracle Worker) and starring Warren Beatty (Dick Tracy) and Faye Dunaway (Chinatown). It wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but it was still very interesting and entertaining. Beatty and Dunaway play Depression-era outlaws Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. The fellow who hosted the screening said the movie should be considered “historical fiction,” but, if wikipedia is any guide, one thing this film gets right is that the Barrow Gang didn’t hesitate to shoot people, even (or especially) police officers, who got in their way. It was considered an unusually violent and graphic movie back in the day, and I thought it was still a little shocking at times. I was also shocked to see Denver Pyle in a small supporting role. I knew him only from TV’s Life and Times of Grizzly Adams and especially The Dukes of Hazzard; I didn’t know that he had ever been an actor. It also co-stars Gene Hackman (Heartbreakers), Gene Wilder (Young Frankenstein) in his film debut, and a kid named Michael J. Pollard who had recently appeared in the original Star Trek episode “Miri.” It’s one of Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies.” Definitely worth seeing, unless you really don’t like shoot-em-ups.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (B). Based on a true story, this is the story of Kim Baker (Tina Fey, Sisters), a copywriter for some TV network who impulsively accepts an assignment to report on the war in Afghanistan. Of course it’s a whole new alien world for her at first, but another female reporter (Margot Robbie, The Big Short) helps her get adjusted. She encounters other colorful characters, like a crusty but decent Marine colonel (Billy Bob Thornton, Friday Night Lights), the skeezy would-be attorney general of Afghanistan (Alfred Molina, Spider-Man 2), and a rascally Scottish journalist (Martin Freeman, The Hobbitses). And she finds herself enjoying, and even getting addicted to, the adrenaline rush of war reporting. IMDB puts it in the “comedy” and “war” genres, but I thought it played fairly seriously despite occasional comic moments. Anyway, it’s a pretty good movie.
The Lady in the Van (B). The redoubtable Maggie Smith (TV’s Downton Abbey) stars in the title role in this British import. An introverted playwright named Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings, The Queen) has bought a townhouse, and he soon meets neighborhood fixture Miss Shepherd (Smith). She’s an eccentric, excitable, and malodorous homeless woman who lives in a decrepit old van that she occasionally moves up or down the street. The neighbors, being normal people, don’t really want her around, but, also being liberals, they can’t bear to run her off either. Somehow she eventually gets Bennett to let her park in his driveway, and there she stays–for the next 15 years. And apparently this is based on a true story! We get bits and pieces of Miss Shepherd’s backstory, which, as to be expected, is not a particularly happy one. Good performances, but the story is a bit slight and certainly a bit sad.
Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict (B). Happy MLK Day! As a government employee, I had the day off, so I thought I’d check out this new documentary. I presumed I would have the theater virtually to myself, but surprise! There were probably 60 or 70 other moviegoers there for the 1:15 show. Who’d have thunk it? Anyhoo, I knew nothing about Peggy Guggenheim going in, so this documentary–biopic was very educational for me. PG was born in 1898 and lived until 1979, and in between she became one of the most influential people in the art world, despite having no formal training. Instead she had some money (being an heiress), a good eye, and some excellent advisers, as well as a personality that allowed her to meet and befriend (ahem) many of the artists who came to define the 20th century. Jackson Pollock was apparently one of her discoveries. Anyway, she lived an unconventional and seemingly pretty sad life, but it made for an interesting movie. Among many other things, I learned that both parents of actor Robert De Niro (Stardust) were artists whose work was shown by Guggenheim back in the day. Worth seeing, if you like this sort of thing.
Joy (B). So, I saw this movie about inventor and marketing mogul Joy Mangano a couple of nights ago. As I was driving home, I thought, “How odd that I have never seen or really even heard of this person before.” When I got home, I retrieved my mail, and, lo and behold, there she was on the cover of a Bed Bath & Beyond flyer, touting her redesigned Miracle Mop. Anyway, I basically agree with Mom Under Cover’s opinion that this is a pretty good movie. It’s Jennifer Lawrence’s picture all the way, and she (Winter’s Bone) delivers her typical go-for-broke performance. Like Mom Under Cover says, Joy is basically a human weeble–she continually gets knocked down, but she always gets right back up. I enjoyed watching her fight to realize her dream, with various degrees of help and hindrance from her divorced parents, her beloved grandma (Diane Ladd, TV’s Alice), her ex-husband, her jealous half-sister, and her dad’s flamboyant foreign girlfriend, played with flair by Isabella Rossellini (Blue Velvet). Bradley Cooper (American Sniper) has basically a glorified cameo as the QVC manager who gives Joy her big break. The ending wrapped up a little too quickly and easily for my taste. But on the whole, I enjoyed it.
I saw Joy recently and would give it a solid B. The third movie directed by David O. Russell starring Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro has much the same feel as Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. This movie is loosely based on the life of Joy Mangano, inventor of the miracle mop (among other items) that sold like hotcakes on QVC and later HSN (Home Shopping Network). Ms. Mangano had consulting credits and apparently approved of the film but the story deviates quite a bit from her life. Joy (Lawrence) pitched her mop to a QVC exec (Cooper) after a cash infusion to make parts for the mop by her father’s (De Niro) girlfriend played by Isabella Rossellini. Russell throws out every imaginable obstacle to thwart Joy’s success but Lawrence’s Joy isn’t down for long before she overcomes. I found the movie a little long and slow in parts but it made me curious enough to Google Joy Mangano–and learn enough to wonder if the movie would have been better if it had stuck closer to her story.
The End of the Tour (B-). If you’re looking for a movie that is basically two smart literary-type guys conversing with each other for an hour and a half, then this is the movie for you. It’s based on a true story: In or about 1996, David Lipsky, a writer for Rolling Stone magazine, interviewed author David Foster Wallace. At that time, Wallace was achieving some celebrity with the successful publication of his immense novel Infinite Jest, and he agreed to let Lipsky interview him over the last few days of the book tour for that novel. Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) plays Wallace, and Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network) plays Lipsky. Wallace suffered from depression much of his life, and he committed suicide in 2008, so that dark shadow hovers over the movie. In Segel’s portrayal, Wallace comes across as an odd character, but fundamentally decent and very serious about wanting to inspire his readers to be decent people too. Eisenberg turns in a good performance too, but his character (almost) never forgets he is there to do a job, not be a buddy, so it’s hard to like him. Joan Cusack (School of Rock) pops up as the chirpy Minnesotan who drives the Davids around Minneapolis for that part of the tour. I thought it was a pretty good movie, but I probably would have appreciated it more if I had ever read any of Wallace’s work.
Best of Enemies (B+). This may be the first documentary I have seen this year. It is about the Republican and Democratic National Conventions of 1968, and more particularly about ABC’s decision not to provide wall-to-wall, gavel-to-gavel coverage of the conventions, but rather to broadcast only selected highlights from the conventions, followed by “debates” between a well-known provocateur from each end of the political spectrum. Those provocateurs were William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal. The movie consists in large part of contemporaneous news footage about the conventions, as well as excerpts from the “debates” themselves. I use scare quotes because, as far as I could tell, Buckley and Vidal used the occasion mainly to insult each other, and certainly not to discuss in depth any of the salient issues of the day. As a long-time subscriber to National Review and admirer of Buckley, I winced when the movie finally got to the most famous exchange between the two, when Vidal called Buckley a “pro- or crypto-Nazi,” Buckley lost his temper, called Vidal a “queer,” and threatened to punch him in the face. The film-makers want to trace the shouting style of modern punditry to the Buckley–Vidal debates, but I can’t imagine things would be much different by now even if Buckley and Vidal had been more civil and actually made arguments. Nevertheless, I thought it was an interesting and well-made movie.
I saw this over Christmas break and thought it was okay. However, I do keep thinking about it (perhaps I’m being taken in by all the Oscar buzz?) and I think it is better than okay. Bradley Cooper completely carried the show. He transformed himself into a reasonable facsimile of the real Chris Kyle. The movie is certainly violent but not gratuitously so. Without mentioning PTSD, director Clint Eastwood paints the picture well of the difficulty soldiers have in leaving the wartime reflexes on the battlefield and participating in life at home. You will want to have seen this before the Academy Awards and my money says it will take some of the Oscar gold.
Another potential Oscar winner. Benedict Cumberbatch (TV’s Sherlock) shows his acting chops. I knew nothing of Alan Turing before this flick; Cumberbatch really inhabits this socially awkward savant who essentially created an early computer. Allen Leech (TV’s Downton Abbey) is fun to watch as another of the brain trust recruited to crack the German secret code Enigma during WWII. Keira Knightly is likable (not always the case for me) as Joan Clarke–apparently the only woman qualified to work on the code cracking team. Matthew Goode (who will join the DA cast as another potential suitor for Lady Mary) is dreamy as the cad of the bunch. This biopic is one to see.
American Sniper (B+). If you liked The Hurt Locker, then I’ve got a movie for you. Clint Eastwood (Letters From Iwo Jima) directs this biopic about Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL who served four tours of duty in Iraq and became the deadliest sniper in U.S. Navy history. It is a solid piece of film-making. Bradley Cooper (Limitless) bulks up to roughly the size of a Sherman tank for the lead role, and he delivers a fine performance. Sienna Miller (Interview) doesn’t have as much to do as Kyle’s long-suffering wife, but she’s good in the role. The scenes featuring Kyle in action in war-torn Iraq, of course, are the highlights, and the last firefight between Kyle’s little squad and the enemy forces zeroing in on them is a real nail-biter. If you like war movies, you don’t want to miss this one.
Big Eyes (B). Director Tim Burton (Corpse Bride) delivers perhaps his most normal movie to date—although the people at the center of Big Eyes are anything but normal. Indeed, this based-on-a-true-story movie reminded me a little of The Informant!, which left me thinking, “Did people really do these crazy things? Really?” This the story of Margaret and Walter Keane, who met in late 1950s San Francisco and got married. Margaret (Amy Adams, The Fighter) was an amateur painter who liked to paint pictures of small children with unusually large eyes. Walter (Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained), a slick promoter, makes Margaret’s paintings famous, and eventually the paintings make them rich. The problem is that Walter is a compulsive liar and tells everyone that they’re his paintings. Why did Margaret go along with the sham? And why did she stay with Walter, who is portrayed in the film as pretty seriously unhinged? The movie doesn’t really get at the answers to those questions, probably because there are no good answers. There are a few recognizable actors in small roles (Danny Huston, Wrath of the Titans; Jason Schwartzman, Moonrise Kingdom), but it is Adams and Waltz’s movie. I enjoyed it, and I’ll be curious to see if the Academy shows Adams and Waltz some love for their solid performances.
Tracks (B). Well, this movie has already disappeared from Dallas-area theaters, but you can probably still catch it on one of those newfangled “netflicks” or something. Anyway, it is based on the true story of Robyn Davidson, a young woman who set out to walk across Australia, east to west, with four camels and a dog back in the late 1970s. Mia Wasikowsks (Stoker) stars as Davidson, and although she turns in a nice performance, I was left a little unclear what would possess someone to want to do such a crazy thing. Adam Driver (Frances Ha) co-stars as a National Geographic photographer who pops in from time to time to take some pix of the adventuress and her camels. The flick also gives you a close-up look at what camels are really like—big, ornery, and possessed of big, pointy, nasty teeth. There were surprisingly few snakes, spiders, and crocodiles, though. Anyway, I enjoyed it, and I look forward to comparing this film to the upcoming Wild starring Reese Witherspoon (Mud).
Schindler’s List (A-). I did not get around to seeing the winner of the 1994 Oscar for Best Picture until last night — I had bought the DVD years ago, but could never bring myself to watch it. It is, of course, as good and as powerful as I had expected it to be. A young Liam Neeson (Clash of the Titans) plays Oskar Schindler, an amoral, womanizing entrepreneur who moves to Krakow, Poland, and hatches a very successful plan to profit from WWII by using cheap Jewish laborers to manufacture things for the German army. Gradually, his eyes are opened to the Nazi horror, and by the end of the movie he has spent his entire fortune on the bribes necessary to save the lives of some 1,100 Jews. Neeson turns in a fine performance (Tom Hanks beat him out for the Best Actor Oscar for Philadelphia), as does a young Ralph Fiennes (Wrath of the Titans) as Amon Goeth, the psychotic Nazi commandant of the labor camp outside Krakow. (Tommy Lee Jones beat Fiennes for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Fugitive.) Ebert included Schindler’s List in his first book The Great Movies, and with good reason.
Life Itself (B). Director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) brings us this movie about the life and times of world-famous movie critic Roger Ebert. I thought it was very well done, going all the way back to his upbringing as an only child, his college years and his early years in journalism, and then his ascent to stardom after he became (and not at his own request) the movie critic for the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper. Of course there’s a decent amount of material about his TV show and rocky relationship with fellow movie critic Gene Siskel, who predeceased him by several years. There is also lots of footage of Ebert’s sadly debilitated final years, after two bouts of cancer in the area of his lower jaw. Ultimately, his jawbone had to be removed, and he never spoke, or orally ate or drank, again. Watching Ebert struggle with rehab and his declining health, and the suffering of his wife Chaz, really becomes rather hard to watch by the end. But it’s a good movie and worth seeing–even if a little horrifying to those of us who are getting to be a certain age.
Jersey Boys (A-). Critical reactions to this new film by director Client Eastwood (Letters from Iwo Jima) have been mixed, but I am not ashamed to say that I loved it. (So did the rest of the theater, which erupted in applause at the end.) Based on a Broadway musical I have never seen, this is a biopic about the pop music group Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons. The story arc is not too different from that of another favorite movie of mine, That Thing You Do! Some young guys are hanging out together, trying to make a go of it as musicians but working other jobs on the side. A new guy comes on board (not Frankie Valli—keyboardist and songwriter Bob Guardio), and after paying their dues for a while the boys finally make it big. To love the movie as much as I did, you probably need to love the music of The Four Seasons too, since there is quite a lot of it in the movie. The focus is tightly on the band’s triumphs and troubles; we see very little of Frankie’s home life and none of anyone else’s. But, bottom line, I thought it was well made and interesting throughout. Virtually all the actors were unknown to me, aside from Christopher Walken (Hairspray) as a fairly unthreatening mobster who takes Frankie under his wing. Give it a try—and prepare to be humming Four Seasons melodies for the next couple of days.