Sam Rockwell

Richard Jewell

14/01/19

We’re only two weeks into the new year, yet we’re already on our third excoriating movie exposé of a corrupt American justice system. Appalled? Yes. Saddened? Yes. Surprised? Not so much. Not any more.

Richard Jewell is the story of a hapless security guard, the focus of an intense FBI and media investigation. His crime? Discovering a bomb and alerting the authorities. But lazy  stereotyping (‘he’s a bit of an oddball and he lives with his mom’) is enough to convince the forces-that-be that Jewell is the perpetrator, responsible for two deaths and more than a hundred injuries, despite a lack of any evidence whatsoever. And, once that suspicion is leaked to the press, Jewell loses control of his life.

Paul Walter Hauser gives us a convincing portrayal of a decent man driven almost to despair. He portrays Jewell as utterly sincere – a naïve, mild-natured, over-zealous employee, a stickler for the rules. His mother, Bobi (Kathy Bates), has always taught him to respect authority, and Jewell has absolute faith in law and order. He is devastated when it proves to be a phoney, a façade.

Sam Rockwell plays Watson Bryant, the real estate lawyer who comes to Jewell’s rescue (in real life, Bryant employed a team to help him; here – for the sake of a stronger storyline – he goes it alone). It’s a terrific performance, giving us a real sense of the man’s selfishness and impatience as well as his deep-rooted morality. Thank goodness for Bryant; I dread to think what might have happened to Jewell if he hadn’t once worked in the same building and earned the man’s respect. Without representation, who knows?

It’s so depressing. How can a so-called mature democracy have a justice system that is so blatantly unfair, where guilt or innocence is decided by how much money an individual has, or by the colour of their skin, or by how desperate the law enforcers are to meet their targets? And Eastwood’s film delivers this message well.

A shame, then, that the women’s roles are so reductive, and that real-life AJC news reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) is depicted as having slept her way to success. It’s an evidence-free stereotype as offensive and pervasive as the one the movie exposes.

It’s not the film’s only fault. Billy Ray’s script is somewhat pedestrian – long-winded in places – and the cinematography a little murky but, nevertheless, taken in conjunction with Seberg and Just Mercy, this amounts to a searing condemnation of a broken institution.

3.5 stars

Susan Singfield

Jojo Rabbit

16/12/19

After the massive success of Thor Ragnarok, Taika Waititi could probably have directed any film he fancied. But he decided to stick with Jojo Rabbit, a long-cherished project, based on a novel by Christine Leunens and written for the screen by Waititi himself. Before Thor, no studio wanted to touch ‘a coming of age comedy featuring the Hitler youth,’ and it’s really not difficult to understand why. On paper, it sounds batshit crazy and on the screen, it looks… well, pretty deranged. But mostly in a good way.

Ten-year-old Johannes (Roman Griffith Davis) is doing his best to fit in with the other kids in the local Hitler youth, and he’s helped along by his imaginary friend, Adolf (Taika Waititi), for whom Johannes has an unquestioning adoration. But a bullying incident soon earns Johannes the titular nickname of Jojo Rabbit. Meanwhile, he tries to figure out what’s going on with his secretive mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), who clearly tolerates her son belonging to an organisation she detests, while taking every opportunity to instill in him the kind of worldview that the Nazis would certainly not approve of. And then, a chance discovery up in the attic leads Johannes to Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a Jewish girl, whom Rosie has given refuge to. Should he inform his sympathetic troop leader, Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell)? Or should he try to learn as much as he can about this mysterious creature whom he had been taught to believe is some kind of evil monster?

The film lurches audaciously between moments of slapstick humour and scenes of outright horror. Of course, this is all seen from a ten year old’s perspective, which accounts for the cartoonish feel of the film, but there’s sometimes the impression that characters are being brought on as added comic relief – Stephen Merchant’s chilling turn as a member of the Gestapo is a good case in point, great while he’s on, but then we barely see him again. Rebel Wilson, an actor whose popularity I struggle to understand, has a cameo role as Fräulein Rahm, occasionally dropping in to shout obscenities and burn books. Johanssen is delightful as Rosie, while Johannes’ interraction with his doleful best friend, Yorki (Archie Yates) is one of the film’s strongest suits. I love too that Elsa is depicted not as a victim, but as a strong, resourceful survivor.

It’s also true that, in a world that is increasingly drifting to the right, Jojo Rabbit has an added prescience. Here, the antics of fascists are held up for ridicule. If only what’s happening in the real world right now were anything like as funny.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Vice

16/01/19

Those people who look at the current political landscape in America and despairingly ask themselves, ‘How could this ever have come to pass?’ should pop along to a showing of Vice at their earliest opportunity, where all will be explained. This is the story of how a taciturn bit-player in American politics cleverly advanced himself into a position of unprecedented authority, becoming the power behind the throne in the administration of George W Bush, and ushering in the kind of rampant corruption that would reach its apotheosis under the tiny thumb of one Mr Trump.

When we first meet Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), he’s a hopeless case: a University dropout with a drink problem, taking menial work to make ends meet. After a confrontation with his long-suffering wife, Lynne (Amy Adams), he vows to straighten himself out and enrols in a political internship, where he finds himself assigned to Republican congressman, Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell in his by-now-habitual good form). Largely by nodding his head a lot and saying very little, Cheney’s career progresses in leaps and bounds – and, when he finally has the chance to play Vice President to the very naive George W Bush (Sam Rockwell), he spots an opportunity to seize the kind of power normally reserved for the President himself.

Adam McKay’s film certainly has the potential to be yet another dull political biopic in the mould of The Front Runner, but it’s lifted way above this level by the playful nature of the storytelling. Whenever there’s any danger of events beginning to drag, McKay has a way of enervating proceedings – a Shakespearian parody here, a sly aside to the camera there – and the repeated analogy of Cheney’s skills as a fisherman are brilliantly exploited as we watch him quietly reeling the next sucker into his control. (When the sucker in question is the President of the USA, it’s particularly chilling.)

There’s also an inspired device where everyman narrator Kurt (Jessie Plemons) keeps popping up to offer his insights into what’s happening, informing us that he and Cheney are somehow ‘related,’ a mystery that’s finally explained in a moment so shocking it nearly has me leaping out of my cinema seat.

Of course, I can’t review this film without mentioning Bale’s Oscar-nominated performance in the lead role. We may be a little jaded by his insistence on physically occupying his chosen subjects, but theres no doubting the fact that he has once again achieved a stunning transformation, as shocking in its own way as what he did to his body in The Machinist. But it’s more than just the look. Bale conveys the character’s traits in every shrug, every grimace, every sly glance – and remember, he’s impersonating a character who’s so impassive there’s very little to work with. It’s a superb central performance in a very assured film.

Make sure you don’t leave the cinema too early – there’s an amusing post-credits sequence that brings matters bang up to date. I emerge feeling as though my eyes have been well and truly opened – and uncomfortably aware that the double meaning of the film’s title is all too apparent.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

02/01/18

Martin McDonagh is an interesting writer/director. His plays are always stupendous and his first foray into cinema, In Bruges, is a five star solid gold masterpiece (and one, incidentally, that just won ‘best Christmas movie’ in our recent ‘World Cup of Everything’ game). The follow-up, however – Seven Psychopaths – wasn’t anything like as assured. Indeed, in a recent interview, McDonagh (with refreshing honesty in a business not usually associated with that sentiment) admits that he took his eye off the ball during the making of it. Now Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri arrives amidst much muttering about potential Oscar wins. The truth is, it’s an interesting film but, sadly, not in the same league as In Bruges. Having said that, it’s still worth your consideration.

In the remote town of Ebbing, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) rents three billboards on a lonely stretch of country road and has them papered with three simple slogans. It’s been seven months since her daughter, Angela, was raped and murdered and, enraged by the lack of any progress in the resulting police investigation, Mildred has decided to start pointing the finger of blame, primarily at Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). He’s understandably miffed by this approach, particularly as he’s recently had a cancer diagnosis and knows that his days are numbered. But Mildred is not about to give up on her mission, even if it is set to make her and her son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), the most unpopular people in the county. Meanwhile, openly racist policeman, Dixon (Sam Rockwell), is not above taking the law into his own hands…

As I said, this isn’t a perfect film but there’s plenty here to admire, not least McDormand’s searing performance in the lead role, brilliantly portraying a woman so obsessed with her daughter’s death that she’s willing to go to any lengths to obtain justice, no matter what the cost. Rockwell too, is splendid, managing to give his initially unsympathetic character some degree of redemption, and Harrelson delivers what just might be his best turn since Cheers. But there are plot strands here that don’t quite convince. Some of the minor characters are never fully developed and others seem to step in for one cracking scene and are never seen again. (I’m thinking here of the scene where Mildred exchanges some crackling dialogue with the town priest. It’s brilliant but it feels unresolved.) Likewise, Peter Dinklage’s turn as (as one character refers to him) ‘the town midget,’ a sweet-natured drunkard who carries a torch for Mildred. And is it just the presence of McDormand and that distinctive Carter Burwell score that make this feel eerily like an early Coen brothers movie?

Whether or not Oscar will come knocking for this film is debatable. Certainly if we’re talking ‘best actress,’ I for one wouldn’t be making any objections – I’ve long been of the opinion that McDormand is one of the best there is. But while this is a huge step up from Seven Psychopaths, it’s perhaps not quite the total masterpiece that many are claiming.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney