Directed by critically acclaimed actor and filmmaker Clint Eastwood who won the Oscar for Best Director for 1992’s Unforgiven and 2004’s Million Dollar Baby, Richard Jewell is a well-acted dramatic film that tells the true story of Richard Jewell who was a security guard wrongfully suspected as the perpetrator of the bombing at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. Richard Jewell, played by the terrific relative newcomer Paul Walter Hauser, is depicted as a quiet and somewhat awkward individual who always wanted to be involved in law enforcement but his aggressiveness prevents him from becoming a police officer or an FBI agent. Still living with his mother Bobi Jewell, played by the acclaimed Oscar winner Kathy Bates, Richard takes a job as a security guard in Atlanta protecting Centennial Park where concerts take place throughout the 1996 Summer Olympic Games and takes his job very seriously. His life is completely overturned on July 26th when he discovers a suspicious package under a park bench at Centennial Park during a concert with hundreds of people in attendance. Ultimately, it is revealed to be a pipe bomb that detonates resulting in the death of two people and over a hundred injuries. For the first few days, Richard is praised as a hero who saved many lives and thereby becomes a media darling. However, the fictionalized FBI agent Tom Shaw, played by Jon Hamm, is sexually coerced into telling a very aggressive journalist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper named Kathy Scruggs, played by Olivia Wilde, that Richard fits the profile of the bomber. Eventually, word rapidly spreads across international news that this one-time hero Richard Jewell is now vilified as the bomber even though the FBI or local law enforcement have not charged him with any crime. The very respectful Richard wants to cooperate with authorities but feels so much pressure from the media and the FBI that he calls his former boss and now small-time lawyer Watson Bryant, played by Oscar winner Sam Rockwell. Watson is a very ambitious lawyer who strongly fights for his client Richard who is devastated along with his mother and tries to change the media narrative portraying Richard as the culprit. The acting performances give the movie a very real feel, especially from Kathy Bates and Paul Walter Hauser whose characters are seen as emotionally distressed victims of a smear campaign and have trouble coping with it since they are just regular people. The nightmare for Richard Jewell and his family goes on for several months as the FBI relentlessly interrogates Richard and comb through their apartment looking for evidence. The major problem with the film is Clint Eastwood’s overzealous depiction of the media and FBI as enemies of the people and even going so far as to fabricate a journalist offering sex for a tip even though it never even happened in real life. Granted, the media and authorities committed reckless actions that irreparably harmed Richard Jewell, but Eastwood sometimes goes too far to show the media and FBI as irreparable predators. Overall, I found it to be a compelling real-life drama that did a good job of recreating the 1996 Atlanta Olympic bombing and showing how it negatively impacted the true hero Richard Jewell; it was complete with first-rate acting performances but stumbled a few times in fairly portraying what really happened in regards to the media coverage and investigation.
The final installment in the nine-part Skywalker saga of the Star Wars movie franchise that has spanned over four decades beginning with Star Wars: A New Hope in 1977, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, although definitely not the best film in the series, is a suitably entertaining movie that will appeal to Star Wars fans for its attempt to wrap up all of the many different character narratives and also will attract casual viewers looking for a CGI space epic. The movie takes place in the midst of the Resistance against the First Order led by a mysterious leader that may be recognizable from the previous films, as well as the increasingly powerful Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver. The characters that we have come to know over the previous two movies return as they are shown strategizing and bringing the fight to finally take down the even more malevolent First Order. General Leia Organa, played by the late great Carrie Fisher, is still the beloved leader of the Resistance along with the more symbolic leader Rey, played by Daisy Ridley, who finally masters the Jedi Force. Rey again teams up with the X-wing fighter pilot Poe, played by Oscar Isaac, and the former Stormtrooper Finn, played by John Boyega, to discover the whereabouts of the true evil overlord behind Kylo Ren who has one last major weapon that could destroy the Resistance and its supporters for good. Of course, a Star Wars movie would not be the same without the sidekicks Chewbacca, C-3PO, and R2-D2 who appear as members of this desperate mission. In order to please Star Wars fanatics, the film effectively uses the tropes of a Star Wars movie by including spectacular sci-fi action in space and on strange planets, showing the return of some of the more unique creatures, and finally answering such questions as who Rey’s parents are and who is really commanding the First Order. This final installment could have been one of the greatest if it was not for the feeling the filmmakers were rushing to find a way to conclude the long-running series that would give fans a satisfying conclusion to the Skywalker narrative arc. Yes, there are some emotional moments of the film, including the complex relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren in addition to a proper farewell to Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia. The filmmakers did an excellent job of bringing Princess Leia back by using unused footage from the previous films that were filmed before Carrie Fisher’s death in 2016; the reappearance of such a beloved character made her scenes the most meaningful and sentimental parts of the movie. Overall, I found it to be a good continuation of the global phenomenon that is Star Wars by trying to tie up the loose ends of such a large cinematic universe developed over several decades, but it still did not live up to the very high standards of the first Star Wars movies made in the 1970s and 1980s.
Directed by Israeli-American documentarian and music filmmaker Alma Har’el and written by actor Shia LaBeouf in a screenplay based on his life, Honey Boy is an often hard-to-watch and heartbreaking powerful drama about a toxic relationship between father and son that is a semi-autobiographical retelling of Shia LaBeouf’s own troubled life. The film revolves around a young actor named Otis, played by Noah Jupe as the 12-year-old version and Lucas Hedges as the 22-year- old version, at two different seminal moments of his life as a child actor in 1995 and later a drug- and alcohol-addicted popular actor in 2005. As the film’s timeline switches back and forth, the main thrust of the story is showing Otis as he relates to his recently sober yet very troubled father James, played by Shia LaBeouf in a revelatory performance, who serves as his chaperone on movie sets while they both live in a run-down Los Angeles motel. The movie is told from the perspective of the older Otis who is in a rehab program and is encouraged to write down his experiences as a child actor with his verbally abusive father. Otis serves as a stand-in for Shia LaBeouf who himself wrote the script during a stint in rehab after a fair share of amount of trouble with substance abuse and law enforcement. It is a very personal yet universal reflection on what fame can do to people, especially those who started as child actors, as well as how children are affected by their abusive parents for the rest of their lives. Overall, I found it to be a difficult movie to sit through but was important enough to merit viewing for its first-rate acting and deeply moving and introspective story written from the perspective of a troubled former child star like Shia LaBeouf.
The sequel to 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle that is a reboot of the 1995 movie Jumanji starring Robin Williams, Jumanji: The Next Level is a very entertaining and fun adventure movie that relies on recapturing the magic of the 2017 version of the Jumanji franchise, with its creative plot and funny characters. Like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, the same group of now college-age students find themselves sucked into the video game Jumanji after realizing that the nerd in the group Spencer has possibly entered the game by himself. However, some of the characters become different avatars in the video game, as well as the addition of two new characters of Spencer’s grandfather Eddie, played by Danny DeVito, and Eddie’s old friend Milo, played by Danny Glover. Due to all of their hilarious surprise, the grumpy Eddie becomes the strong archaeologist and explorer Dr. Smolder Bravestone, played by Dwayne Johnson, the slow talking Milo becomes the scrawny and squeamish zoologist and weapons valet Franklin “Mouse” Finbar, played by the hyperactive comedian Kevin Hart, the popular jock “Fridge” becomes the obese middle-aged archaeologist and cartographer Professor Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon, hilariously played by Jack Black, and the shy unpopular girl Martha remains the attractive commando and martial artist Ruby Roundhouse, played by Karen Gillan. While searching for Spencer in the Jumanji world, they are given a new mission that must be completed to return to the real world: retrieve the Falcon’s Heart jewel from the powerful villain Jurgen the Brutal, played by Rory McCann best known as The Hound in the HBO TV series Game of Thrones. Eventually, the very mismatched group reunite with the beautiful popular girl Bethany who was left behind but found her way back into the game as a horse named Cyclone with help from the pilot and adventurer Jefferson “Seaplane” McDonough, played by Nick Jonas. They also finally discover Spencer as a new and rather unexpected avatar and says he wanted to re-enter Jumanji because he feels out of place in the real world and estranged from his friends, especially Martha after they started a long-distance romantic relationship. Extremely similar to the previous installment, the film uses the effectively fun formula of creating eccentric characters who find themselves in rather hilarious situations dealing with their new bodies as they embark on a dangerous adventure. Overall, I found it to be a highly entertaining blockbuster movie that may have recycled the same premise as the previous movie but did so in a way that did not lessen the audience’s enjoyment and was helped by the addition of Danny DeVito and Danny Glover.
Co-written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton best known for 2013’s Short Term 12 and 2017’s The Glass House, Just Mercy follows the template of a rather typical legal drama that rises above the rest through its emotionally powerful moments brought to life by a terrific cast telling a true story. The plot revolves around a recent Harvard Law graduate named Bryan Stevenson, played by Michael B. Jordan in one of his best performances, who decides to move to Montgomery, Alabama in the late 1980s to set up a pro bono legal organization to help Alabama inmates get off death row. With the help of a local activist who is played by Oscar winner Brie Larson, the passionate Stevenson creates the Equal Justice Initiative out of a sense of idealism in what he quickly discovers is a very hostile environment to pursue legal justice for death row inmates, especially African American men, in the historically racial discriminatory South. At first, he encounters resistance from the incarcerated individuals themselves who have largely given up on the judicial system to give them a reprieve from the death penalty. Eventually, Stevenson is able to convince Walter McMillian nicknamed Johnny D., played by Oscar winner Jamie Foxx in one of his best recent performances, to fight his flawed conviction and sentencing to death for the murder of a young white woman in the small town of Monroeville, Alabama in 1987. Stevenson, whose 2014 memoir of the same name is the basis for the film, works tirelessly to overturn what he soon realizes is McMillian’s wrongful conviction; as an African American from an impoverished rural community himself, Stevenson struggles personally with the case because he knows he could have been treated just like McMillian. The filmmaker does a good job of recreating the real courtroom drama that took place over several appeals and trials to exonerate McMillian. Outside of the legal process in Alabama that still is full of systemic racism, Stevenson, along with Brie Larson’s unfortunately underdeveloped character, must also deal with the outside world in which they often face death threats and menacing police officers following them. As the audience sees through Jordan’s excellent acting and ability to develop the character, Stevenson is clearly burdened by the unjust treatment of inmates who he gets to know on a personal level and sheds several layers of his optimism in the face of such adversity. Overall, I found it to be a thought-provoking drama that delves deep into the contentious issue of the death penalty and particularly how it relates to racial discrimination; the movie quite effectively presents the problems with the justice system by telling a true story with talented actors able to convey the story’s impactful message.
Directed by music video filmmaker Melina Matsoukas in her feature film debut and written by Lena Waithe best known for her work on the Netflix comedy series Master of None, Queen & Slim is a provocative and wholly unique drama about a very specific African American experience revolving around a couple on a first date who end up on the run from the law. The movie is remarkable for its terrific acting performances and nuanced script that begins with the accidental shooting death of a police officer who quickly escalates a unjust traffic stop of the black couple who we only know as Queen, played by British newcomer Jodie Turner-Smith, and Slim, played by Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya. Facing an uncertain future at the hands of authorities, the two decide to leave the scene on a dark and cold Ohio night and go on a Bonnie and Clyde-esque road trip to evade authorities. They first meet up with Queen’s Uncle Earl, played by Bokeem Woodbine, who lives in New Orleans as a pimp and is willing to help Queen as a favor. Throughout the movie, the fraught racial intersections of white and black America come to the fore with the two largely recognized as symbols of racial injustice from the perspective of the African American community while the majority of white police forces see them as a deadly criminal threat. The filmmaker does an excellent job of keeping the audience engaged in an otherwise incisive social commentary by focusing on the gradual development of a romantic relationship between very different individuals stuck in the same situation: Queen who is a criminal defense attorney and Slim who is a devout Christian. Their journey to freedom is also captivating as a road trip movie in which the audience gets to meet a wide range of interesting characters who have different motivations for helping the duo, including a white couple who are played by Chloë Sevigny and the musician Flea. Rather unexpectedly, they also run into people who would otherwise be against them as so-called cop killers, as well as black Americans who sympathize with their complicated situation that has race at the heart of the issue. Overall, I found it to be a beautifully-crafted film that tells a poignant story of a budding romance between a pair of individuals deeply affected by a system of racial inequality; it is a story of love and a nuanced journey through the soul of black America, all put into motion by a very violent and complicated beginning.
Directed by critically acclaimed independent filmmaker Todd Haynes best known for 2002’s Far from Heaven and 2015’s Carol, Dark Waters is a riveting legal thriller about one corporate defense attorney switching sides to pursue justice by fighting the large chemical company DuPont that has been poisoning a West Virginia community. The movie, which is based on a true story, is especially powerful as a result of its terrific acting and thoughtful chronicle of a more than 20-year legal battle that is still ongoing. The film begins in 1998 when we first meet attorney Robert Bilott, played by Mark Ruffalo, as a rising star at his large Cincinnati-based law firm working as an environmental lawyer defending corporations. However, his life and work are turned upside down when West Virginia farmer Wilbur Tennant, played by Bill Camp, asks for help after he discovers widespread poisoning of his cattle that he suspects is the result of a nearby DuPont chemical plant dumping toxic waste. At the hesitancy of his law firm and boss Tom Terp, played by Tim Robbins, because they defend corporations like DuPont, Bilott begins a decades-long legal crusade against DuPont after his in-depth investigation reveals that they have been using the toxic chemical PFOA in the production of Teflon without ever disclosing it to the public and environmental government agencies. Fighting such a dominant and powerful group as DuPont takes a heavy personal toll on the soft-spoken and mild-mannered Bilott whose wife Sarah, played by Anne Hathaway, feels that the case is taking over his life and preventing him to spend time with his young family. Despite all of these struggles, he continues and eventually starts a class action lawsuit comprised of the public living around Parkersburg, West Virginia who are being subjected to the chemical in their drinking water. At the same time, his legal team expands and later includes a local West Virginia attorney who is played by Bill Pullman. Mark Ruffalo does a remarkable job of displaying the sheer tenacity of the real life hero Bilott who pursues justice at all costs as long as it will take until he feels DuPont cleans up their act and gets rid of PFOA. Overall, I found it to be a truly powerful film that tells a horrific true story of a corporation disregarding the public in favor of profits and how a otherwise normal lawyer decides to do the right thing and stands up to such a Goliath of industry. It is especially intriguing that a director such as Todd Haynes who is best known for intimate artsy independent films felt so strongly about telling the story that he would decide to direct a movie largely outside of his scope.
Directed by Marielle Heller best known for 2018’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a beautifully affecting and bittersweet movie about the beloved children’s television host Fred Rogers and his relationship with a journalist that shows exactly how Mr. Rogers positively affected those he touched personally and on television. Unexpectedly, the movie focuses much more on the emotional evolution of the fictional journalist Lloyd Vogel, played by Matthew Rhys best known for his role on the TV series The Americans, who is somewhat of a curmudgeon but is told by the editor of Esquire magazine to do a short profile of Fred Rogers. The character Lloyd is actually based on the real-life Esquire writer Tom Junod who wrote an 1998 article that the movie is based. Lloyd sees himself as a serious journalist who is coping with the new reality of being a father to a newborn baby and is hesitant to interview someone like Fred Rogers who Lloyd the skeptic believes is disingenuous. Eventually, he goes to Pittsburgh to the set of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood at the PBS television station WQED in order to interview Rogers for an issue of Esquire about heroes. Lloyd is taken aback by Fred Rogers, played brilliantly by the nice guy of Hollywood Tom Hanks, who is exactly like he is on television, a wonderful human being too humble to be called a hero. Throughout his time interviewing Mr. Rogers on several different occasions, Lloyd is struggling with the reappearance of his estranged father Jerry, played by Chris Cooper, and wants nothing to do with him since he left his sick mother years ago. The real purpose of the movie is to show how Lloyd eventually comes around to make amends with his father as a result of the the advice given to him by Mr. Rogers who teaches him to forgive and care for family and friends even when they may be troubled themselves. Rogers himself admits to not being a perfect person as everybody believes him to be and even admits to having difficult relationships with his two sons. The filmmaker quite effectively depicts Fred Rogers through a single episode of his kindness towards another character who needs help, rather than the traditional biopic that may not have given a truly personal story that would resonate with the audience. Other terrific filmmaking decisions were to include models of cities and puppets as they were in the original show, as well as using similar video cameras from the real Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to recreate scenes from the television show. Overall, I found it to be an uplifting movie that captures the true spirit of such a down-to-earth man of values as Fred Rogers, primarily as a result of the intimate script and perfect casting of Tom Hanks. Yes, the film does have sad moments as the emotionally distant Lloyd tries to come to terms with his family situation while receiving invaluable moral guidance from Mr. Rogers.
Written, produced, and directed by Rian Johnson best known for 2005’s Brick and 2017’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Knives Out is a modern take on the classic murder mystery whodunit that has a brilliant script with many twists and a terrific ensemble cast, making for one of the most entertaining movies in recent memory. Similar to an Agatha Christie murder mystery, the story revolves around the mysterious death of a wealthy crime novelist named Harlan Thrombey, played by Christopher Plummer, whose entire dysfunctional family are gathered together for his 85th birthday in his remote grand old mansion in Massachusetts. After discovering his body in what looks like a suicide, the police led by Detective Lieutenant Elliot, played by Lakeith Stanfield, as well as a stereotypical Southern private detective named Benoit Blanc, played by a very memorable Daniel Craig, begin an investigation to see whether there was foul play so they begin interviewing each member of the family. There is the oldest daughter Linda, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, who has an air of self-importance; Linda’s husband Richard, played by Don Johnson, who may be having an affair; the youngest son Walt, played by Michael Shannon, who runs his father’s publishing company but feels underappreciated; and the daughter-in-law Joni, played by Toni Collette, who always tries to ingratiate herself to her father-in-law who financially supports her and her daughter. Equally unique characters, the younger generation is comprised of the spoiled socialite Ransom, played by Chris Evans; the conservative Internet troll teenager Jacob, played by Jaeden Martell; and the liberal college student Meg, played by Katherine Langford. Detective Blanc, very reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s famous detective character Hercule Poirot, is a rather funny character who is brilliant but sometimes is a over-the-top buffoon throughout his investigation in which nobody is eliminated as a suspect. An unexpected central character of the plot is Harlan’s young Hispanic caregiver Marta, played by Ana de Armas, who genuinely cares for Harlan unlike his rather unpleasant money-grubbing family. The filmmaker does an excellent job of having the eccentric characters play off one another as they are really competing to see who will benefit the most financially from Harlan’s will. Besides the excellent cast, what really sets the movie apart is the script full of entertaining surprises and unexpected twists that harks back to the classic murder mystery movies that relied less on bloody violence. What makes it different is it is much more of a comedy that pokes fun at upper class families who are very much out-of-touch with the rest of the world and only think about maintaining their wealth and status. Overall, I found the film to be true cinematic gold that is so entertaining that one feels as if they are a part of the investigation and playing a game of Clue. Rian Johnson creates something that feels so new and extraordinary for such a old-fashioned style mystery; he was also blessed by a wonderful cast that really pulled the whole thing together. Three words: go see it!
Directed by Bill Condon best known for 1998’s Gods and Monsters and 2017’s Beauty and the Beast, The Good Liar is an above-average British crime thriller that is somewhat predictable but is a devilishly fun showcase for the critically acclaimed actors Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren. The story follows the con artist Roy, played by British Oscar nominee Ian McKellen, who preys on the gullible using fake identities to make away with large amounts of money. Eventually, he meets the well-off widow Betty, played by British Oscar winner Helen Mirren, and decides to make her his latest mark by earning her trust through a romantic relationship. Over the course of their companionship and possible dating, he cleverly manipulates her to allow him to stay at her house pretending to have a knee injury. After a trip to Berlin in which Roy reveals surprising facts about his real background brought forth by Betty’s suspicious grandson Steven, played by Russell Tovey, Roy tries to convince Betty to create a joint bank account with the help of his long-time accomplice Vincent, played by Jim Carter best known for his role in Downton Abbey, who is posing as a investment accountant. The real fun showing the chemistry between the actors comes towards the end of the film when the intentions of both Roy and Betty are finally brought to life through a series of plot twists connected to their lives as teenagers during World War II. Overall, I found it to be an entertaining movie to pass the time that does not really add much to the genre but is worthwhile to watch simply for the brilliant performances given by Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren in their first movie together.