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Jim Schembri’s new release movie reviews and Oscars wrap. 13 Feb, 2019

Jim Schembri

RICHARD JEWELL ***1/2 (131 minutes) M

With his eye keenly focused on the failings of the FBI and the media, director Clint Eastwood continues his cinematic celebration of real-life American heroes with Richard Jewell, a solid, punchy, under-dog drama about a heroic act that all but ruined a man’s life.

During the 1996 Atlanta Olympics the plan by a lone terrorist to kill as many people as possible at an open-air music concert is foiled by corpulent security guard Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) who discovers the bomb, raises the alarm and evacuates people before the device detonates.

Though the explosion claims a life and injures scores of people, it’s believed that the body count would have been much higher had the bomb gone off as intended.

Jewell becomes an instant media darling, his non-athletic physique and humble disposition casting him as a self-effacing everyman who was just doing his job. His loving mother (Kathy Bates), with whom he lives, is elated that her long put-upon son is finally getting the recognition and respect he deserves.

Within days, however, Jewell’s situation turns inside out as FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) starts developing a case that places Jewell as the prime suspect behind the bombing.

Using Jewell’s long-frustrated desire to be a cop as a motive, Shaw believes he might just be the type of nutjob who’d plant a bomb, then fake-find it to make himself out to be a hero, which would look good on his resume.

Excited no end by this scenario is local journalist Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), a sensation-loving tabloid hack who is happy to use sexual allure for information and whose love for investigative reporting is primed to produce great headlines.

Swept up by a textbook media circus and hobbled by his extraordinary naivety, Jewell gets the support of lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), a man he slightly knows from a previous job who sees the ever-growing pickle Jewell is in.

As is his wont, Eastwood directs with great  efficiency and dramatic snap; he wastes no time setting up his characters and situations, eliciting top-shelf performances from his cast, some of whom have embraced the opportunity to portray real slimeballs with zeal.

Hamm is terrific as the FBI agent blinded by his conviction that he is on the trail of nailing a home-grown terrorist while Wilde excels with her study of journalistic malfeasance.

Ironically, while Richard Jewell deals with a media circus the film itself has been the cause of a minor medias circus.

Much indignation has been roused by the film’s suggestion that Scruggs used sex to do her job, with demands that Warner Bros alter the film to acknowledge this.

The studio responded by steadfastly backing the film. This, presumably, would have pleased Eastwood no end, given his sketchy regard for the media. For her part, Wilde has stated publicly she did not believe Scruggs exchanged sex for information.

Written by Billy Ray (Captain Phillips), Richard Jewell is the latest in Clint Eastwood’s cinematic celebration of real-life American heroes, following American Sniper, Scully and The 3:17 to Paris. These are part of a larger wave of films including Captain Phillips, Lone Survivor, Zero Dark Thirty, United 93, Deepwater Horizon and Patriots Day.

All of this underscores the unparalleled speed and proficiency with which filmmakers now reprocess modern American heroism through the medium of cinema, thus crystallizing their deeds for the public record.

Side note: Jonah Hill and Leonardo DiCaprio are listed as producers on the film. They originally wanted to make it, with Hill as Jewell and DiCaprio as Bryant and Paul Greengrass as director. Hmm. Now that would have been something.

 

EMMA *** (125 minutes) PG

While there’s no risk this new version of Emma will replace that place in our hearts long occupied by Gwyneth Paltrow’s near-perfect 1996 Emma, it is nonetheless a fine, lush-looking, very well-directed remake starring a cast of relative unknowns and a lot of splendidly upholstered heritage-listed houses.

For those who skipped a few too many English Lit classes, Emma is based on the 1815 book by Jane Austen, the proto-feminist author who also gave us such ever-adaptable romantic classics as Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility.

Set in the well-to-do world of the English upper class, the cautionary tale follows the meddling of gossip-loving Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy), the strong-willed, independently minded daughter of an elderly land baron (Bill Nighy) whose wealth and privilege have liberated him from all concerns in life, save for the detection of cold draughts.

Emma is a minx: a face of alabaster beauty has imbued her with an admirable self-confidence and, consequently, a less-admirable ability to influence those around her, especially women.

With an out-sized ego and nobody to challenge her aside from her life-long friend, the great-looking George Knightley (Johnny Flynn), Emma is a self-appointed matchmaker, advising who is best for whom – all, of course, according to her values, not theirs.

Insulated from consequence, it’s all a game to Emma – that is, until she over-steps the mark by putting the kibosh on the proposed union between her close friend Harriet (Mia Goth) and local lad Robert Martin (Connor Swindells).

Emma’s hubris comes in for a hammering when Knightley, a close friend of Martin’s, gets hopping mad at Emma over the happiness she has prevented with her interference.

Her overall behaviour is the issue at the heart of the story, and whether she has the good sense to see how she affects the social world that revolves around her. Is it possible for somebody with such an inflated sense of self to see how they can be obnoxious, even cruel?

It’s a highly engaging theme, and first-time feature director Autumn de Wilde (a photographer by trade) shows the sureness of touch of a seasoned filmmaker here, drawing out the built-in tension of Austen’s refined dialogue and liberally sprinkling the film’s romantic drama with verbal wit and visual gags.

She also pulls off a memorable scene where, without words, she shows the moment two people fall in love. Either de Wilde had help composing the scene or she’s got a gift. It’s really quite something.

Of the cast only Bill Nighy will have instant name recognition to a lot of people.

Still, the young players put in impressive turns, with Flynn sturdy as Knightley and Anya Taylor-Joy (Glass; Split; Morgan; The Witch) especially good as Emma. Costumed and made up to highlight her porcelain beauty, she hints at the ugliness that can dwell beneath a veneer of such finery.

As for the film’s period look the costumes are gorgeous and glowing, complementing the verdant exteriors of hedgerows and hills carpeted by lawn, and the sumptuous interiors. With so much of the British countryside officially protected – including some of those magnificent estates – it’s always fun to wonder how the production values of period films such as Emma benefited, and how much it might otherwise have cost.

But why remake Emma? Along with Gwyneth’s film (actually written and directed by Douglas McGrath), there was the 1932 pre-code film, the very good 1996 telefilm starring Kate Beckinsale and, to be fair, 1995’s Clueless starring Alicia Silverstone, a loosely adapted modern-day version of Emma.

As we saw with Little Women, it’s common practice with remakes, especially of period films, to read some topicality into the work, just to help justify its existence.

In the case of the new Emma, which remains fairly faithful to the novel, we’re presented with the suggestion that busy bodies with nothing better to do but meddle in the lives of others existed hundreds of years before the internet was invented.

Not that the film needs a contemporary hook. Emma stands fine on its own.

  

A GUIDE TO SECOND DATE SEX *  (81 minutes) MA

In this absolutely dire relationship comedy two lovelorn souls attempt to hook up a second time after a promising first encounter.

Even given the license we grant comedies, neither of these dolts are easy to warm to or care about. Ryan (George MacKay from 1917) is an inexplicable bundle of nerves with no social skills while Laura (Alexandra Roach) is, apparently, an idiot.

There’s a bunch of date-gone-wrong signs that should send her to the nearest cab back home, yet she persists with Ryan even though he’s welshed on his promise to take her out, instead offering to show her a DVD in his bedroom, to which she somehow agrees.

However generous or relaxed one’s frame of mind might be while watching a film, there is a point where violations of common sense and believability simply render a movie a waste of time.

That happens about 15 minutes into this mess, written and directed by first-timer Rachel Hirons who offers little that is enlightening, interesting or even funny.

 

OSCARS WRAP 2020 – some notes

Say what you like about the 92nd Academy Awards ceremony being too long and longing for the return of a host, you can’t deny the historic fact that this year’s Oscars was a banner year for cows.

Joaquin Phoenix gave a hoot of a Best Actor acceptance speech for Joker, and it was perfectly fine of him to speak about our shared values and to push back against cancel culture. We all make mistakes and we all deserve a shot at redemption. Yay!

But when he started going on about artificial insemination of cows and stealing their milk and their babies you had to wonder whether he was suffering a method actor relapse and had started channelling the Joker.

It was one of many violations of the decree issued by Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes, that the privileged and the ultra-wealthy are in no position to lecture the public, so award winners should just thank their agent, their God and then promptly desert the podium. (not his exact words)

Brad Pitt, on taking out Best Supporting Actor for Once Upon A Time in Hollywood had a go at Trump while co-director Julia Reichert, accepting her Best Documentary doorstop for American Factory, pushed the envelope by yelping “workers of the world, unite!”, the famous closing line of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto. Perfect timing in an election year.

Continued carping about the lack of women at the Oscars appeared unfounded.

Though Greta Gerwig not getting a best director nomination for Little Women was a genuine anomaly given how many other awards it was up for, women seemed to spend a lot of time accepting awards.

Aside from the obvious biggies, women won for score, costume design, production design, documentary short, make-up & hairdressing and animated short.

It seems Chris Rock was wrong after all. There were plenty of women represented. (not his exact words.)

The triumph of the South Korean film Parasite was well-deserved, taking best film, director, original screenplay and best international film.

Still, it’s important to keep the obvious importance of this in perspective.

Though Parasite was the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture, non-English language films have long been eligible for the award. The earliest nomination on record is 1997’s Life is Beautiful, with last year’s Roma nearly winning the gong.

Director Bong Joon Ho said lots of lovely things during his many visits to the podium – including his standing ovation-triggering tribute to Martin Scorsese, the true winner of the night – but he did slip when saying how the Oscars was changing to a new direction to be more inclusive.

The more subtle truth is that the Oscars has long been evolving to be ever more inclusive, with its focus chiefly on merit. Yes, politics, mood and lobbying can affect Oscar voting and we all still wince at those times when the wrong film seems to have won.

By and large, however, the Oscars have never really pushed a “Hollywood First” agenda, and the winners list prove that over and over across the decades.

Remember when Billy Crystal joked in the mid-1990s about how Oscar was America’s biggest export? He was cracking wise about the fact that studio films were missing the mark while films from elsewhere, including the independent sector, were nailing it.

Non-English language films have long been eligible to vie for other awards – including best picture – provided they meet certain screening conditions.

That door has been opening ever wider for decades. The renaming of the Best Foreign Language Film to Best International Film is the latest step in an evolution, not a sudden change.

Even the plethora of South Korean people on the stage this year is consistent with the growing recognition of Asian talent at the Oscars.

So, well done Parasite, a film that didn’t so much open a new door but walk through a doorway that was already jammed open.

Oscar’s two-year trial of having a hostless ceremony can now officially be considered well-and-truly over and a resounding failure. The variety of one-off presenters was nice and novel for a while, but the spectacle of people introducing people introducing people bordered on farce.

Let’s face it, the Oscars need the spine of a host. You can’t have all that stuff going on without a centre of gravity to pull it all together, even when it goes off the rails.

Think back to the stellar work of Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal, prime examples of how good hosts can give the sprawl of a ceremony cohesion and character. As for the wit of Bob Hope and Johnny Carson, their examples still shine.

And while everyone jokes about how the acid-tongued Golden Globes host Ricky Gervais would never be invited to host the Oscars, getting somebody with a bit of edge, a bit of bite, just the right amount of snark, could do the trick.

Because the Oscar has to do something. The US rating figures for the 2020 ceremony are a disaster – at 23.6 million, it’s a record low, a massive 20% fall from last year’s soiree, which got 29.6 million.

So, what accounts for the growing disconnect between the ceremony and the public? People clearly love the films nominated, but not the ritual that honours them. What gives?

Perhaps the infiltration of woke culture is proving a huge turn off for regular people. Calls for diversity, the #OscarsSoWhite carping, the sight of winners preaching to the public – a practice disparagingly known as “virtue signalling” – leave people cold.

For all his bluster, maybe Ricky Gervais is right. Having the richest, most famous, most beautiful, most privileged, most adored people on earth telling the rest of the earth how to be good make for bad optics.

And that’s why people aren’t watching as much as they did.

Jim Schembri
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