Togo (2019)

Togo (2019)

Directed by: Ericson Core. Starring: Willem Dafoe, Julianne Nicholson, Christopher Heyerdahl. Runtime: 1h 53 min. Released: December 20, 2019.

Some spoilers follow.

The story of the sled dog, Togo, who led the 1925 serum run in Nome, Alaska, but was considered by most to be too small and weak to ever lead a dog race. Togo is a true underdog story as even his owner, Leonhard Seppala (Willem Dafoe), never thought he would amount to much. We see through flashbacks Togo being a hyperactive pup and smartly getting out of his pen to go race beside Seppala’s sled dogs.

These scenes are charming as we see how Togo becomes Seppala’s most trusted dog. Dafoe is stellar as Seppala as he leads a noble expedition to get the serum from Nenana, about 675 miles away, as the weather is too harsh for the serum to be flown to Nome. The stakes are high because of the diphtheria outbreak in Nome, and this expedition is to save the lives of the town’s children. Seppala leads the dogs but Togo is the lead interest in the film as an aging dog that looks to be on his final legs.

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Willem Dafoe in Togo. (IMDb)

Seppala knows the risks of using Togo as his lead dog because of his age, but he knows that if he doesn’t bring Togo, they’d never make it. The story about a man and his dog is excellent here and the chemistry is great. The drama here is excellent, too, especially with a charming Julianne Nicholson as Constance Seppala who is the only one who really fights for Togo when he’s a pup.

The action here is also breathtaking and so is the cinematography by Ericson Core, who also directs. The action’s at its most incredible when they race across the Norton Sound, ice breaking and all, and the way back is even more intense. The film has all the inspiration of a sports movie, and brief sports scenes of an actual dog race, the All-Alaska Sweepstakes, shines. I’d just love to see a live-action dog racing film that has a similar look and tone, because a feature-length story of a dog race would be great. I’ve only ever really seen a dog race in Snow Dogs in film, but that’s just a goofy comedy.

I think this is an excellent untold story of Togo as he and Seppala traveled the longest out of any of the relay teams of 260 miles through beyond freezing conditions. Togo’s the star of the 1925 serum run, and the film’s not trying to take away any of the fame of the most-known dog of this race, Balto, it’s just sharing the lesser known tale of Togo.

Score: 80/100

The Perfection (2019)

The Perfection (2019)

Directed by: Richard Shepard. Starring: Allison Williams, Logan Browning, Steven Weber. Runtime: 1h 30 min. Released: May 24, 2019.

Some spoilers follow.

When troubled musical prodigy Charlotte (Allison Williams) seeks out Elizabeth (Logan Browning), the new star pupil of her former school, the encounter sends both musicians down a sinister path with shocking consequences. Y’know, I absolutely love movies with a twist.

But with The Perfection, there are about four or five twists sprinkled throughout the film. These are not small twists, either; they are twists that subvert expectations at every turn. I could barely figure out what film it’s trying to be, and when I thought I had figured it out, director Richard Shepard and co-writers Eric C. Charmelo and Nicole Snyder say “Psych!” and change the direction of the film. The changes feel organic to the story, however, and they are rarely frustrating.

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Allison Williams in The Perfection. (IMDb)

That’s what makes The Perfection one of the most unique horror films I’ve seen in awhile as it blends romance, a stalker movie, a virus film, as well as another genre which would border on spoiler. I’ll just say that some characters get their comeuppance and that aspect doesn’t work as well as the others. The third act twists are intriguing, but one aspect is a disturbing pillow to swallow. It’s the only direction of the film I don’t completely love as it becomes slightly too dark for even my tastes, and I think if it was handled in a different this would be in my Top 10 of 2019. (For reference point, this would probably still make my Top 30 out of 200 films.)

Allison Williams and Logan Brown are both great here. Williams plays so many layers convincingly that I swear after this and Get Out, I could never trust her. Steven Weber also turns in a memorable performance as the music teacher who thrives on perfection. It’s a film that is separated into distinct chapters and tones and they are balanced well. The Perfection is a wild, wild ride and it takes so many risks, even if they don’t all pay off. It also never feels like a gimmick where it’s only about its twists, because it gives thought to its characters. It has backbone and for a film that could be very standard, it takes an utterly crazy path, the road less traveled. It’s audacious to its last shot. Truly, the last note I wrote for this film in my notebook was: “Honestly, what the fuck?”

Score: 75/100

Contagion (2011), and my thoughts on the Coronavirus/COVID-19

Contagion (2011), and my thoughts on the Coronavirus/COVID-19

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh. Starring: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law. Runtime: 1h 46 min. Released: September 9, 2011.

Some spoilers follow.

During our Coronavirus pandemic, it seems like everyone is watching Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion. Last week I think this was at No. 35 on the Most Popular Movies IMDb chart and as of this writing (very early morning, March 21) it sits at No. 4 on that popular movie chart. This makes sense, because there’s no better way to make yourself more paranoid right now than watching Contagion.

The film itself is about a fast-spreading virus, the MEV-1, that escalates into a pandemic as the CDC works to find a cure. The spread of the disease is the most fascinating aspect in Contagion, originating in Hong Kong with Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) and escalating quickly from there when she returns home to Minnesota.

The way the virus spreads feels realistic and it’s interesting as it’s established what the “basic reproduction number” is and how quickly it will spread. It’s engaging to watch because of Soderbergh’s apt direction and I love his aesthetic in his own cinematography, as well.

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Kate Winslet in Contagion taking us through the “basic reproduction number.” (IMDb)

I’ve always found this a realistic, engaging drama/thriller. I haven’t watched this since 2015, but watching this during a pandemic, the paranoia hits differently. The mortality rate depicted in the film is 25-30 per cent, where 1 in 4 people will die from it, and according to an article on Business Insider and, I’m copying and pasting this part, “according to Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, COVID-19’s mortality rate is probably around 1%, which is still about 10 times the flu’s.”

The pandemic depicted in Contagion is obviously more aggressive, but there are some eerie parallels to our real-life. It’s also impossible to watch this film and not spot the parallels to our life and this film. Even in the film’s tagline, “Don’t talk to anyone, don’t touch anyone,” feels like our world right now with social distancing.

In the film, the disease starts in a populous place like Hong Kong (Wuhan for Coronavirus), where tourists fly home, infect people at the airport, and then infect people back home as they go about their everyday life. The other big thing is the looting of supermarkets and stores. We’re not at the “looting” stage yet, but I think that all relates back to the panic buying of toilet paper of all things, and the bulk-buying of essentials that others need, too. And I’m sure if someone in real-life suggested there were a cure like in the movie (“forsythia” in Contagion), it could get a little crazy out there with people trying to get it.

Personally, I haven’t seen any of the “looting” but I’ve seen a lot of pictures online about empty grocery store shelves and the lineups getting into COSTCO, or people fighting over toilet paper. I mean, when I went to the grocery store around March 10, there was still toilet paper but less than there usually would be. I also haven’t been outside since March 15, before my province of Ontario declared a state of emergency, so I’m not sure what my local grocery store would look like right now.

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Jude Law wears a Hazmat suit going outside in Contagion. (IMDb)

As of this writing, Canada only has 1,087 cases, and I can only assume it will only get worse here. With some of what I’ve seen, especially the amount of new deaths everyday in Italy and the images of military trucks transporting coffins out of the area feels like it’s straight out of a horror movie. The aggressive way that’s spreading in Italy feels like Contagion, and the most unsettling scene in the film because of that is when a city runs out of body bags.

In our world right now, I think it’s the fear of the unknown of how long this virus will look a week from now or a month from now. When will be able to return to regular living? I go to the movie theatre once or twice a week, but how long will they be closed for? This is turning into a review of Contagion and my thoughts on the Coronavirus/COVID-19, but this is therapeutic sharing my thoughts on it, and also relating it back to Contagion, since I see the world through film.

Contagion could easily be an exaggerated docudrama. There are things here that feel “apocalyptic” that I don’t think COVID-19 will lead us into, but the fact that NHL, NBA and MLB have suspended their seasons and Las Vegas is shut down for 30 days is crazy. It feels different than anything I’ve lived through during my lifetime, especially H1N1 in 2009/2010. I was in high school then and surely did not miss any school because of it. I don’t know if the media is blowing it out of proportion – but when I see tweets of people losing their loved ones to it yet others are still out on spring break, it feels like this should really be taken seriously to “flatten the curve.”

Okay. I just have bad anxiety, depression and I can be a hypochondriac at times, so it’s just a freaky time. I’ll just talk Contagion now. I think it is at its most fascinating when it shows the spread of the disease. There’s one especially great scene when Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer, is trying to find out who Paltrow’s character has come in contact with and she calls someone who is sick on a city bus and tells him to get away from people. The shot of him touching everything is just effective.

The film is interesting when it brings Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) into play, a blogger/journalist and conspiracy theorist who thinks that the virus is manufactured as a profiting scheme for drug companies, using his large platform to stir this fear.

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Matt Damon in Contagion. (IMDb)

At times this isn’t the best with creating well-rounded characters, and some feel more-so identifiable by the actor playing them than the character themselves, and this is very much the case with Laurence Fishburne as Dr. Ellis Cheever, who works for the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). His development is the flattest of the ensemble. Other characters get sidelined, like Marion Cotillard as Dr. Leonora Orantes who is investigating how the disease started in Hong Kong and then totally gets sidelined for half the film for reasons that would spoil it.

Everyone plays their characters very well and the ensemble is impressive. The film is engaging throughout because it’s a fast-paced analysis of a viral outbreak, but for the human side it only shines in a couple moments. One such scene is between Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), who is one of the players working to find a cure, and her father in a very sweet moment. I also liked Matt Damon’s character here, who is the husband of Beth Emhoff, who might as well as be Patient Zero. I think the first time I saw this film (in April 2012), the most surprising thing was Gwyneth Paltrow dying by the 8-minute mark. Once we see how aggressively this virus spreads, it isn’t that surprising, but as an audience member I felt the same way Damon’s Mitch Emhoff feels when he’s told his wife is dead because of the virus. “Right. I mean, so can I go talk to her?” he asks.

I think this is one of the best scenes in the film to show just how quickly it escalates. The fact that he loses his wife and then his stepson in a matter of 24 hours from this virus is so traumatic. There are ways his character could be fit into the story more – since he is immune, I think using his blood as a base for the cure would have given him more purpose – but the way his character plays out is believable. This is especially the case of how protective of he is of his daughter, Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron), and not letting her interact with other people because she’s the only thing he has left. There’s a heartbreaking moment near the end of the film when Mitch processes what’s happened.

The film’s ending is anti-climactic as it shows the origins of the virus in a fascinating scene, to where it all started. It’s anti-climactic in the way that the virus shows up, it gets cured, and life gets back to normal. Hopefully, that will be the case sooner than later with our Coronavirus.

Score: 75/100

The Hummingbird Project (2019)

The Hummingbird Project (2019)

The Hummingbird ProjectDirected by: Kim Nyugen. Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Alexander Skarsgård, Salma Hayek. Runtime: 1h 51 min. Released: March 22, 2019.

Two high-frequency traders and brothers, Vincent (Jesse Eisenberg) and Anton (Alexander Skarsgård), go up against their old boss, Eva Torres (Salma Hayek) as they try to make millions in a fiber-optic deal. The film shows us how a few milliseconds can be the difference between being a millionaire or being irrelevant as the brothers try to build a fibre tunnel that would give them information on the stock market milliseconds before the rest of Wall Street. “It’s like getting the winning lottery numbers at the stock market before they’re drawn,” says Vincent.

The Hummingbird Project shows an intriguing but uneventful battle as the pair try to stay ahead of the market that can change at any moment. Kim Nyugen directs the film with such a precise style, and the attention to detail in his writing makes this feel like a true story. It isn’t, but the characters feel like they could be. It’s more impressive this is a fictional because this seems to be a hard concept to comprehend and Nyugen makes it accessible. The brothers are somewhat interesting as they think they’re David and will be getting ahead of the Goliath company, run by Hayek’s Torres, who has a stranglehold on the stock market.

Eisenberg plays his smooth-talking character well, he seems like a weasel with ulterior motives, but he’s the idea man and his problem solving makes people want to work with him. It’s an intriguing race for a millisecond and I love the inspiration for the title. Anton explains the concept to a bartender to make the concept more accessible, and says a millisecond is “one flap of a hummingbird’s wing.” It’s a compelling race. Hayek plays Torres well, and is bitter they leave her company because Anton’s so brilliant.

Skarsgård plays Anton well, as he spends most of the film obsessively trying to find that millisecond. He looks like Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder and does a dance like his in one of the film’s most exciting sequences. Watching Anton try and shave off the millisecond becomes uneventful after awhile, as the film doesn’t have enough substance to be a wholly compelling thriller. It works well as drama, so it’s weird it’s billed as a thriller on IMDb because it has many slow stretches.

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Jesse Eisenberg and Michael Mando in The Hummingbird Project. (IMDb)

The story’s intriguing and I think Vincent’s desperation to get this done so he can know victory. The finale of the film is good, with some fun moments and it finally feels eventful enough for a thriller. The drama almost always works, like the ethics of putting a line under Amish land when they do not want it. Eisenberg is solid as the character, especially when the stress of the situation brings him to a boiling point where he literally wants to take Goliath down because of how many times she’s undermined him.

He becomes like Gollum in his anger, saying, “I’m stuffing your mattress with money, you’re going to help me up there to tear down that tower.” The zoom on the second half of this line is absolute gold, too. If you like good drama and a strong performance from Eisenberg and are patient enough to wait for the thrills, The Hummingbird Project works because of its strong writing.

Score: 60/100

My first podcast – Filmcraziest Presents: Popcorn Flicks, Episode #1, “The Luck of the Irish”

My first podcast – Filmcraziest Presents: Popcorn Flicks, Episode #1, “The Luck of the Irish”

Hi everyone and Happy St. Patty’s Day!

I’m excited to share my first self-produced podcast for my website, called Filmcraziest Presents: Popcorn Flicks. The podcast will be a review show about Disney Channel Original Movies. I love Disney Channel Original Movies and they have a lot of nostalgia for me (I did a bunch last October during the Halloween month, so hopefully I’ll talk about all of those on the podcast in time). I’ve always wanted to start a podcast on DCOM’s and I finally tricked someone into doing it with me and that’s my good friend Bobby Strate, who I met through my scriptwriting program.

We’re two awkward guys discussing the film, so hopefully it’s entertaining. I decided to make the pilot episode the 2001 DCOM The Luck of the Irish since today is St. Patrick’s Day (I’m posting this at 9 p.m., so it’s still St. Patrick’s Day for a couple hours more).

I realized after we reviewed it that it’s probably the most offensive way you could celebrate Irish culture, and we talk about that during the podcast. We discuss its stereotypes (where all Irish people are leprechauns), its unbelievable premise and how it could be stronger with its villains, and the laws of physics in basketball during the movie.

I’d love to hear any feedback! I don’t have much of a budget yet for a logo or a theme song, so hopefully by next episode I’ll have those. Also, to let everyone know, there’s vulgarity so this podcast is definitely not sponsored or affiliated with Disney in any way. We also spoil everything. Without further adieu, here’s the link to where you can listen:

(May 1 Update: You can listen on Soundcloud here or you can listen directly below or download the podcast here on my website, where you’ll get an option to download it by clicking the three dots.)

 

The Irishman (2019)

The Irishman (2019)

The IrishmanDirected by: Martin Scorsese. Starring: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci. Runtime: 3h 29 min. Released: November 27, 2019.

Martin Scorsese brings an all-star cast of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci to the little screen in Netflix’s The Irishman, a mafia movie that follows Frank Sheeran (De Niro), a mafia hitman who recalls his career and his involvement in the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino).

The good in The Irishman are in its performances. De Niro is threatening and such a presence as Sheeran. Pacino plays a great union leader in Hoffa, and he gets most of the angry explosions that Joe Pesci has become known for. Pacino’s also perfect at convincing certain people that he’s nice, as well. Pesci plays Russell Bufalino, the head of the Buffalino crime family. He’s threatening and powerful but stays calm and collected throughout the film, and he’s more threatening for it.

The most interesting part about this for me is Frank’s relationship with his daughter Peggy (played by Anna Paquin when she’s older). Paquin does a great job as the character because while she only has seven words of dialogue, her stares at her father speak a thousand words, and just her general disapproval and suspicion of his involvement in Hoffa’s disappearance. In the scenes when Peggy is a child, we can tell she’s scared of him because of his reputation and just the fact that he curb stomps a dude right in front of her because the man pushed her (De Niro stomping near the guy’s head is the least convincing thing in this film). Frank’s relationship with his daughter was the only time I felt emotionally connected to the film.

That’s not to say that the dialogue is bad or anything, Scorsese writes and directs the film like the master that he is, there just aren’t a lot of moments in this film where I could get emotionally attached to the characters. They’re all criminals, but they’re well-sculpted characters. The mafia action scenes – when Frank would just casually walk up to someone and shoot them in the face – are great. The more complex ones like Frank shooting someone in a restaurant off-screen and then getting into his getaway car is also exciting. The scenes in this film that I loved, I truly loved, as everyone from the starring trio to Ray Romano and Jesse Plemons are well-cast and enjoyable to watch.

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Al Pacino in The Irishman. (IMDb)

The film just literally feels like I took all day watching this. I thought there were more than a few boring stretches in this 209-minute film. I don’t have anything against long movies, but this just feels like it drags. I’d be bored, it would hold my attention for 45 minutes, then I’d be bored again. The crime saga admittedly feels aimless at first as Sheeran recaps his career and it only gets fascinating when Jimmy Hoffa comes in but that’s not until 80 minutes into the story. De Niro’s point of view is a good way to get into this story, but I really feel like the first 80 minutes could have been done in half the time and this would me a much better film at 170 minutes.

It spans different decades and when the stars are younger, the film uses de-aging technology. It’s distracting at first as De Niro’s blue eyes are distracting and Pesci’s head looks too big for his body, and they still walk like old men. As it jumps around through its timeline, it becomes more fluid and less noticeable. That also could be just because it’s three and a half hours and you might forget they’re using de-aging technology. I think The Irishman is a good movie, just not one I’d ever be interested in watching again.

Score: 60/100

Just Mercy (2019)

Just Mercy (2019)

Just Mercy posterDirected by: Destin Daniel Cretton. Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson. Runtime: 2h 17 min. Released: December 25, 2019 (limited).

(This review contains spoilers.)

A well-acted true story, Just Mercy is about world renowned civil rights defense attorney Bryan Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) as he starts a company, Equal Justice Initiative, defending the wrongfully convicted. His first case is Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a death row inmate falsely accused of killing a young woman in Monroeville, Alabama.

These wrongfully accused stories are one of my favourite sub-genres in film, so I have been excited for this one for awhile and it doesn’t disappoint. Michael B. Jordan is strong as Stevens and it’s fascinating learning why the character’s fighting for these characters. Jordan brings a strong presence to the character, though he gets outshined by Jamie Foxx as McMillian who has to trust that another lawyer won’t screw him over like the Alabama justice system has. When Stevens is different than most lawyers and legitimately cares about the case, it creates a charming chemistry because of Stevens’ compassion.

Much of the injustice here is the racism and how everyone in the community accepted McMillian did it because of some rumours in the town of Monroeville. The smartest observation in the screenplay (by director Destin Daniel Cretton and co-writer Andrew Lanham, based on the book by Bryan Stevenson) is that since the crime took place in Monroeville, multiple characters including new district attorney Tommy Champan (Rafe Spall), reference their pride that their town is Harper Lee’s hometown, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird.

The irony is brilliant that they’re so proud that an author from their town wrote such a classic piece of literature – about a black man falsely accused of rape as a white lawyer defends him – that they’re unaware they’re just being as racist and prejudiced as the characters in the novel.

The depiction of some of the prejudice feels stereotypical, as some just feel like cartoonish racists, mainly on two occasions where Stevens is pulled over by police for no apparent reason (this scene is tense), as well as a group of men angry that one of their “own” is working with Stevens.

That is Eva Ansley (Brie Larson), the Operations Director of the company. This aspect of the film is interesting as she is judged the most harshly for aligning herself with an outsider who is trying to get a man off death row. Larson has some strong moments in the film and adds to the well-rounded cast. A charming part about this film is the sense of community it creates between its characters.

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Jamie Foxx in Just Mercy. (IMDb)

One of the reasons I like these kinds of films so much is because the lawyer research feels like detective work as Stevens goes through the case and sees the many things that the original lawyers missed or didn’t even bother to look at. I just like it when the case breaks and everything just clicks, and it feels like the highs of a sports movie in that way. The lawyer work is great as Stevens learns surprising things on that journey, and Tim Blake Nelson is strong as an integral character, too. I like the layers to his character, and he helps show that the true antagonist in Just Mercy is Monroeville’s justice system.

The main storyline is compelling and well-paced at 137 minutes. A main sub-plot with a character called Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan) is great, too. Morgan is fascinating as a death row inmate and ex-veteran dealing with severe PTSD who has to cope with his actions.

Also making an appearance in the film is O’Shea Jackson as Anthony Ray Hinton. This character feels out-of-place because there’s no interaction between him and Stevenson, but he’s accurate to the real-life story as one of Walter and Herbert’s cellmates. I imagine some of his scenes could have been left on the cutting room floor for pacing, as his story is relevant enough to have added another 30 minutes to the film. It’s smart for pacing to sideline him, but it feels like a waste for the character and the actor’s talents.

Despite that fault, it’s still an emotionally compelling film with some engaging courtroom drama, as well as a handful of heartbreaking scenes. Both these characters truly give perspective into how many inmates need the help of Bryan Stevenson and the film is generally an important story showing the importance of the Equal Justice Initiative.

Score: 80/100

Brian Banks (2019)

Brian Banks (2019)

Brian Banks featuredDirected by: Tom Shadyac. Starring: Aldis Hodge, Greg Kinnear, Sherri Shepard. Runtime: 1h 39 min. Released: August 9, 2019.

(This review contains spoilers)

A football player’s dreams in the NFL are halted when he is falsely accused of rape and spends six years in prison. He gets released and fights to clear his name within an unjust system as he tries to get back into football shape.

Aldis Hodge’s performance as real-life football player Brian Banks is the highlight here. The film portrays the crime sensitively, and Hodge captures the embarrassment and anger of wanting to clear his name well because he is a registered sex offender. By the end of the film he’s so inspiring and Hodge fills Banks’ shoes expertly.

It’s fascinating when Banks is released and contacts Justin Brooks (Greg Kinnear) of the California Innocence Project. It’s a unique film in terms of false imprisonment movies as the character usually tries to clear their name from behind bars. Banks does this out of prison and contacts Brooks because he’d be a registered sex offender for the rest of his life if he doesn’t clear his name.

I also think it’s fascinating watching the film not be contained to Brian’s character behind bars as he tries to clear his name himself. Though, he still might as well be in prison because of the sex offender tag – which doesn’t let him play organized football since he can’t go near a school or parks.

Greg Kinnear is also good as Brooks who fights for Banks because he legitimately believes him. I like Sherri Shepard as Brian’s mother Leomia, fighting for her son because she also knows he’s innocent. I don’t think I’ve seen any films with Shepard, but she’s strong in this supporting role.

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Aldis Hodge in Brian Banks. (IMDb)

Some of the most effective scenes in the film are when people see him differently for his conviction. Brian also spends time with a woman named Karina (Melanie Liburd), who walks away when Brian tells her about his conviction. She comes back into play later, but these scenes are effective. Knowing that Brian did not commit this crime, it’s heartbreaking throughout when everyone looks at him like he’s guilty.

That’s the reflection of the unjust, tragic system that has failed Banks and so many others. It’s also very unfortunate to watch when he gets terrible advice from his lawyer.  The reasoning behind the false accusation is also sickening, as her words give him a prison sentence and have an impact on his career as he was an up-and-coming star. It’s tragic in this aspect.

I won’t spoil further how his story plays out, but don’t Google his name before watching this since it’s a true story. I love this film and think it will be under-seen (it currently has 1,788 votes on IMDb), but it’s good drama directed by Tom Shadyac (whose filmography includes Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Liar Liar).

This film also just hits two specific films I love: False accusation films and sports films. It brings the strength of both those sub-genres – like the courtroom drama and detective work, uncovering stuff that people missed of false accusation movies, as well as the inspiring and triumphant part of a sports film. I think it’s a special film. It’s not perfect film as some of the dialogue and direction is standard, but it’s special because of Brian Banks’ story. His story is great and so is the story of the California Innocence Project.

Score: 75/100

In The Tall Grass (2019)

In The Tall Grass (2019)
In the Tall Grass poster
IMDb

Directed by: Vincenzo Natali. Starting: Laysla de Oliveira, Avery Whitted, Harrison Gilbertson. Runtime: 1h, 41 min. Released: October 4, 2019.

Based on the novella by Stephen King and his son Joe Hill, In the Tall Grass does not overcome a complicated story. The set-up is simple enough. A pregnant Becky (Laysla de Oliveira) and her brother Cal (Avery Whitted) are on their way to San Diego. When they pass through an anonymous rural area in Kansas (actually filmed in Toronto), a little boy named Tobin (Will Bouie Jr.) calls for help from a tall field of grass.

Like many horror stories, this is born from a “What if?” What if a kid shouts for help from the depths of some very tall grass and claims he can’t get out? Unfortunately for Becky and Cal, they decide to help and soon find there’s no way out.

The film’s similar to The Blair Witch Project in the way that characters lose all sense of direction. Characters could hear someone else right next to them, and then all of the sudden it sounds like they’re on the other side of the field. Coming with losing sense of direction, also comes the sense of time being lost. There’s a sense of it being a time loop occasionally, but it’s more-so blurring past and present while in the field. This is really what allows the film to be confusing.

The only rule the grass has is that if something dies, the grass doesn’t move it around. Otherwise, it has no rules. It throws the timeline of events out of whack constantly, so it’s tough to follow. The film starts with Tobin calling Becky and Cal into the field. They try to find him and get lost, and the initial exploration of the grass has fine tension. Things get interesting when ex-boyfriend Travis (Harrison Gilbertson) comes looking for Becky.

He finds their car beside a Church across the street from the grass and goes into the grass looking for them. I thought Travis would get lost and someone would look for him, and then someone would come looking for that person… It would be like a chain of people looking for people in this field. What happens in the film is more creative, surely, but also more confusing.

This film has the weirdest patch of grass in the world, though. In the centre of it, there’s a large rock that Ross Humboldt (Patrick Wilson), Tobin’s father, claims that if you touch it, you’ll know everything the tall grass knows. Since this field is across the street from that Church, it’s really like a worship rock. The film has religious undercurrents through it, where some aspects feel inspired by the Bible.

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Laysla de Oliveira and Avery Whitted in In the Tall Grass (IMDb).

Compared to Stephen King’s other works, this feels like Children of the Corn and Pet Sematary in the way that there is sacred ground and everything seems to be reborn here when it becomes part of the Earth, which is an intriguing idea.

The characters themselves aren’t intriguing. Becky is fine and I like her character growth. Cal can be annoying. Tobin is just a kid trying to get out of the tall grass. There’s some okay character tension between Cal and Travis but it’s rather weak drama. Travis tries to make up for past mistakes with Becky, which is noble, I suppose.

The film’s horror is very much about the unknown, and the grass makes me think twice about going into random fields or corn mazes, or anywhere I can’t see five feet in front of me. The film has a cabin fever vibe as the characters start to get stressed out by their surroundings. The giant worship rock also brings an “absolute power corrupts absolutely” theme.

There are some strong horror scenes, like one 10-second part I played back a couple times because the visual is just gnarly, but the film is hurt by nonsensical storytelling. I got antsy for them to escape the grass. Not because I cared, because I wanted this to be over. I will say, though, that the production value is strong and the settings of the film are nice, and Craig Wrobleski’s cinematography makes the grass a character in its own right.

Some of the horror is the grass slowly, menacingly billowing in the wind. We got enough of that in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening. Yet, In the Tall Grass does not have nearly the same amount of entertainment value, and feels a lot of its pacing feels like watching grass grow.

Score: 50/100

Richard Jewell (2019)

Richard Jewell (2019)

Richard Jewell posterDirected by: Clint Eastwood. Starring: Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Olivia Wilde. Runtime: 2h 11 min. Released: December 13, 2019.

American security guard Richard Jewell saves thousands of lives from an exploding bomb at the 1996 Olympics but is vilified by journalists and the press who falsely reported that he was a terrorist. One of my favourite sub-genres of films are false accusation movies where the main character must clear their name with the help of others, and Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell falls into that category. It’s also a story of heroism that turns tragic when Jewell’s five minutes of fame turns into a nightmare.

This nightmare starts when Olivia Wilde’s character, journalist Kathy Scruggs gets a report from one of the leading federal agents, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), that they’re investigating Jewell as the bomber. The Feds think he fits the profile because he’s always wanted to be in authority but not able, and this on his resume would catapult him into an authority role. From here, the feds they tunnel-vision onto Jewell because they think it just fits so well.

Wilde and Hamm are both convincingly despicable. Their unlikability feels unrealistic at times, especially Shaw because he’s so cruel to Jewell – and that’s not to mention the unethical things he and partner Brandon Walker (Mike Pniewski) do – but it all feels reflective of how nightmarish this situation must have been for the real Richard Jewell.

Paul Walter Hauser turns in easily one of my favourite performances of last year as Richard Jewell. He’s been on my radar since 2017’s I, Tonya as an absolute scene-stealer as Shawn there, but he steals the entire show here as Jewell. He plays mean security guard at the beginning well but that’s just because he wants respect, and you can tell Jewell just wants to do his job well.

Richard Jewell article
Sam Rockwell and Paul Walter Hauser in Richard Jewell. (IMDb)

His compassion is endless and his patience throughout this whole ordeal is heartbreaking because of the way he’s treated, they don’t deserve that patience. In key scenes he shows he’s just as angry as everyone else even if he doesn’t express it, but you can see it in his eyes. His scenes of vulnerability are great and the only thing that Jewell’s character is guilty of is respecting authority too much. It doesn’t spoil anything, but a scene of Jewell with eating a doughnut is great acting. That sounds silly without context, but it is one of the film’s best scenes.

Sam Rockwell is also great as Richard’s lawyer, Watson Bryant. His fight for Richard is nice and their chemistry is great. The chemistry shines from the opening scene as Richard briefly works at his firm and Watson is the only one who treats him as a person. Kathy Bates is heartbreaking as Richard’s mother Bobi Jewell, and Bates plays her with great vulnerability. If anyone has a harder time in this situation than Richard, it’s his mother and she shows this in a few key scenes. Her recreation of Bobi Jewell’s real-life speech is flawless as she pleas the press to lay off Richard.

The story itself has good pacing and feels like an accurate depiction of what happened. Screenwriter Billy Ray does a strong job with the screenplay, adapting a magazine article by Marie Brenner. The scene where the bomb goes off and its lead-up is so suspenseful and is well-directed by Clint Eastwood. This is truly just a great story of a regular guy caught in an undeserved media circus.

Score: 80/100