Thursday, January 2, 2020

The Two Popes, Uncut Gems, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Richard Jewell, and Little Women [2019]

Cinematic Smorgasbord, End of 2019 Into 2020
As noted in our last posting, Film Reviews from Two Guys in the Dark has been on temporary hiatus for the last couple of weeks, but now we’re back with some shorter summaries than usual (although plenty in total) of what all we’ve been exploring during these recent holidays.

Given there's so much to be addressed here, we'll abandon the usual structure of a lead review using the elements of What Happens, So What?, and Bottom Line Final Comments in favor of versions of our Short Takes remarks, still noting spoiler info and (attempts, where something viable emerges) Musical Metaphors,* even if there're really stretched for those wrap-up-inclusions.

*Apparently we're not the only ones blending prose and song for a multimedia experience as noted in this article about Stefani Bulsara’s unique novel, Radio Gaga: A Mixtape for the End of Humanity.

Reviews by Ken Burke

I invite you to join me on a regular basis to see how my responses to current cinematic offerings compare to the critical establishment, which I’ll refer to as either the CCAL (Collective Critics at Large) if they agree with me or the OCCU (Often Cranky Critics Universe) if they choose to disagree.

If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who’d like to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify such give-away sentences/sentence-clusters thusly: 
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.

       The Two Popes (Fernando Meirelles)   rated PG-13

While the 2 principal characters—Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis—are real people, their dialogues here are fictional based on what’s known about them, their attitudes (often opposed) toward the world and the Church, and the events leading to 
Benedict’s rare decision to relinquish the Papacy followed soon by Francis’ election as successor.

Here’s the trailer: (Use the full screen button in the image's lower right to enlarge it; active that same button on the full screen's lower right or your "esc" keyboard key to return to normal size.)

 As with A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Marielle Heller; review in our December 11, 2019 posting), The Two Popes is more “inspired” by true events than “based” on them as if we were in near-factual-docudrama territory (claims to the contrary about such films not withstanding) as represented by such "based" cinematic interpretations as Dark Waters (Todd Haynes; review in our December 4, 2019 posting)—a former-corporate-based-lawyer takes on Dow Chemical for massive, deadly pollution—or Richard Jewell (Clint Eastwood; reviewed farther below in this posting)—a security guard who save lives by finding a bomb at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics is targeted by the FBI as the bomber.  On the contrary, while these 2 Popes—German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, became Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) in 2005; Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, became Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce) in 2013—are actual people, Benedict now in self-chosen-retirement, Francis serving as the titular Bishop of Rome by leading the Roman Catholic Church’s worldwide congregations, and they did meet after Benedict’s “abdication” (enhanced on screen with some documentary footage of both), what we get here as dialogues between these 2 religious leaders is essentially fictional (based on research about what they think or have previously stated) so this film shouldn’t be understood so much as representing history as being an intended inspiration about mutual respect, understanding, willingness toward acceptance and tolerance, an extremely useful “sermon” for my highly-divisive country (U.S.A.) as well as the rest of the world increasingly moving toward separatism, nationalism, self-serving economic interests, ongoing wars fueled by various religious, cultural, political conflicts.  As such, probably more than with any other marvelous on-screen experience I’ve tried to talk or write about, I find it very difficult to express/describe/ clarity what works so well about being within the “sacred told through the secular” glow this film gives off.  Simply put, you should watch it, which is much more likely by streaming on Netflix (the ultimate producers) than finding it through its limited release in theaters.  (Netflix also brought us toward the end of 2019 those 2 other marvelous films, The Irishman [Martin Scorsese; review in our November 21, 2019 posting] and Marriage Story [Noah Baumbach; review in our December 11, 2019 posting] with all getting some level of theatrical release but only … Story’s still relatively-accessible on the big screen [at least in my San Francisco area] so prepare yourself for a home viewing of The Two Popes, especially if done before the Jan. 5, 2020 broadcast of the Golden Globes where both Pryce and Adam Driver [Marriage Story] compete for Best Actor in a Motion Picture-Drama while their films—along with The Irishman—compete for Best Motion Picture-Drama, along with Scorsese up for Best Director; the screenwriters for all 3 films are nominated; Hopkins plus Al Pacino, Joe Pesci [both for The Irishman] vie for Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture.)

 Maybe I’m not up to the difficult task of translating such eloquent, intense dialogue (some of it delivered in a movie-set-Sistine Chapel, under Michelangelo’s monumental frescos [unfortunately overexposed in backgrounds of shots, not shown in their actual glorious hues], subtly giving us a sense of the enormous intellectual/emotional weight facing the decisions of these solitary men, presented here in such humble terms) into a similarly-engaging-review, yet, rather than attempting to write more than I have here I just keep coming back to “please watch this for yourself”—a film serving as a perfect message for this hoped-for-season-of-peace—as what best can be said about … Popes (although, if you’re not already aware of such history you can also get some revealing backstory on Bergoglio concerning his early choice between a romantic relationship or the priesthood, his terrible sense of failure for not having stood up against the military dictatorship in Argentina known as the "Dirty War" [1976-‘83], Jorge Mario offering self-testimony in both cases). As revealed in the casual-to-serious-dialogues between Benedict and Francis (mostly before Bergoglio took on the Papal name of Francis, but it’s much easier to write about them when both are in their renamed-personas, so I’ll generally do that), as well as other information presented to us as both actual/recreated news reports during the time Benedict served as the Holy Father, then the attempt by Francis to resign his position as Archbishop of Buenos Aires rejected by Benedict prior to the turn of events where Francis becomes Pope, the Church was/is besieged by the internal-gone-public scandals of corruption within the Vatican Bank* along with the still-evolving-horror of sexual molestations over recent decades (mostly clergy abusing children/adolescents but also bishops abusing seminarians [full disclosure: I was raised Catholic—although I never suffered any abuse from priests or nuns, except the years it took me to purge myself of supposedly-infallible-theology this and all other forms of religion are based on, finally evolving to an at-best-agnostic-state as I’ve rejected both the mythologies and the fundamentalist-hatred displayed in too many so-called “faiths”—so it’s still saddeningly-horrid to me to see these necessary indictments of a moral-system so ruined by its own hypocrisy]), situations that conservative-traditionalist Benedict proved incapable of handling properly causing him enough personal grief to bring about his momentous-decision to step down from a role usually concluded only through death, leaving it to his inevitable-successor, Francis (runner-up vote-getter in the College of Cardinals when Benedict was elected).  In one of the final, moving scenes of this film they briefly hear each other’s confessions, admitting their fragile humanity even when surrounded by all those holy images they’re expected to personify.

*Problems depicted in film since at least the plotline of Godfather III (Francis Ford Coppola, 1990)—more dramatic, homicidal than the actual events (at least we assume)—but continuing into today.

 Neither Box Office Mojo nor The Numbers seems to tally the theatrical presence (domestic [U.S.-Canada] or international) of offerings primarily intended for streaming but with some presence in theaters, thus I can’t cite anything definite about audience response to The Two Popes (although some sources show it with about $400,000 in its first month in a handful of domestic theaters).  However, CCAL support is quite solid, with 89% positive reviews at Rotten Tomatoes, a 75% average score at Metacritic (more info on both of the responses of these review-collection-services in the Related Links section of this posting much farther below, as with everything else reviewed this time), lots of praise for Pryce (although I was just as impressed by Hopkins), so rather than try to find some further avenue of accolades for one of the best of 2019 in my opinion (even if you might insist a 4 stars-rating deserves more detailed analysis, unlike some of the well-intended-but-still-somewhat-flawed-projects I address at length below; however, some art just doesn’t lend itself so much to verbal elaboration as it does to contemplative self-reflection after attentive exposure, so I’ll leave it to you to see what I’m talking about with The Two Popes, even if I’m [surprisingly!] not talking as much as usual).  All that’s left for me to do, then, is to steer you toward my commentary-closure-tactic of a Musical Metaphor, which this time will be Pink Floyd’s equally-contemplative “Us and Them”* (from the 1973 album The Dark Side of the Moon) at, bringing in some jazz influences paralleling young Bergoglio’s interest in such music to enhance such haunting lyrics asafter all we’re only ordinary men Me and you God only knows it’s not what we would choose to do […] With, without And who’ll deny it’s what the fighting’s all about?”  In a marvelous end to the film, Benedict and Francis watch the World Cup soccer finals in 2014, Germany vs. Argentina, with Germany as the victor, not implying Benedict’s more conservative worldview should be the direction for their Church nor for us as an audience but simply that “in the end it’s only round and round and round,” with no real victors as such but only empathetic-dialogue, which we could all use more of, more often, with more balance between talking, listening, and action.  (No spoilers here, after all. I hope there’s nothing I’ve “revealed” would in any way interfere with your full enjoyment of this grand film; if so, I ask for your absolution.)

*Ironically, this song's originally written as an instrumental for Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1969) but rejected by him as being “too sad […] It makes me think of church.”  (I can’t verify this link's citations but am willing to believe, as the info/quote seem to be from legitimate sources.)

            Uncut Gems (Josh and Benny Safdie)   rated R

Howard’s a successful Manhattan jeweler but his life’s in constant turmoil (including an impending divorce made worse by his affair with a co-worker) mainly because of his gambling addiction causing him to take foolish chances hoping for a huge payday, increasing his troubles; Adam Sandler is marvelous in this role, probably best of his career.

Here’s the trailer:

 We open in an Ethiopian mine in 2010 where workers find a large, rare black opal (although it contains a color spectrum as you look into it), with only parts showing through the surrounding rock; we journey with the camera into this gorgeous world of hues, ultimately transforming into images clarified as colonoscopy video (sounds gross but an imaginative, effective transition foreshadowing beauty-intercut-with-danger driving this unusual, effective film—probably in my 2019 Top 10 once I’ve seen a few other possible contenders); this colon belongs to Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a jeweler in NYC’s Diamond District, successful enough to own a huge house in the suburbs for his family—wife Dinah (Idina Menzel), ready for divorce after Passover, though (the directors discuss their intentions for the dynamics of that scene), despite the impact on their 3 kids—plus a Manhattan apartment where he lets his store worker Julia (Julia Fox) live so they can carry on an affair.  Howard's out on the edge in other ways too, trapped by a gambling addiction putting him $100,000 in debt to brother-in-law/loan shark Arno (Eric Bogosian), whose thugs keep hassling Howard to pay up.  Somehow Howard ends up with the opal (delivered hidden inside a large fish), shows it to client/Boston Celtics basketball star Kevin Garnett (playing himself) but says it can only be sold through an upcoming auction, then loans it to Garnett as a good-luck-charm, keeping Kevin’s NBA championship ring as collateral which he then immediately hocks to make a huge bet, intending to buy back the ring with his winnings.  Howard wins his wager, but that night at his daughter’s school play he’s confronted by Arno, Phil (Keith Williams Richards), and Nico (Tommy Kominik); they tell him the bet was stopped because that money should have gone to Arno (therefore, no payoff for Howard), then they strip him, lock him in his car truck so he has to call Dinah to let him out.  In a frantic attempt to get the opal back (not returned when promised), he ends up at a party where The Weekend’s (also the real guy) performing, but Howard gets into a fight with him because Julia's cheating (more or less) with the singer.  Howard tells her to vacate the apt. (she’s mad but leaves, takes her belongings), then tries pathetically to reconcile with Dinah.  Howard finally retrieves the opal; however, at the auction its value is reduced from the original $700,000 to about $200,000, Howard using father-in-law Gooey (Judd Hirsch) as a plant to up the bidding against Garnett, but the plan fails when Gooey has the winning bid at $190,000, after which the thugs beat up Howard again.  ⇒Kevin still wants to buy the opal though, offering $175,000, getting his ring back after Howard puts up his own Knicks championship ring (must be quite rare, given their ongoing demise) at the pawn shop, but, instead of paying off Arno, Howard sneaks the bag of cash to back-in-love Julia who takes a helicopter to the Mohegan Sun casino in CT to place a huge bet on that night’s Celtics-Philadelphia 76ers semifinals game 7 (seen in actual footage), then traps Arno and his guys in a confined security-door-space at the shop until the game’s over.⇐

 ⇒Howard wins his complicated bet, Julia collects the $1 million + haul and slips away from more of Arno’s guys tailing her, but when Howard lets the main thugs loose in his store Phil abruptly kills both Howard and Arno, then he and Nico ransack the jewelry cases.⇐  Like with the opening visuals, we travel by camera into the bullet wound on Howard’s cheek to a color field, then stars in the night sky (oh, by the way, Howard’s colonoscopy just resulted in benign polyps [same for me a few months ago; I’m sure you wanted to know that]).  Unfortunately, I can’t fully talk about the full impact of this testosterone-fueled-adventure-ride without noting those spoilers, so—if you didn’t read them yet before seeing this film yourself (should be easy; now playing in 2,348 domestic theaters)—I’ll just say Uncut Gems is a “gem” of a story, racing frantically through a few maddening days for Howard (more likely to die of a heart attack than colon cancer anyway, given his furious anger at everything, spewing constant profanity), a troubled addict we’re set up to attempt to sympathize with even as he seems incapable of making a right choice (yet, his pep talks to Garnett do seem to help win the huge bets he makes on those 2 Celtics games) even as his personality’s not very endearing most of the time.  Although Sandler’s not included in the Golden Globes noms for those soon-to-be-announced-prizes, you’ll find he and other aspects of this film are well represented in the ongoing Metacritic tally of nominations/awards along with their summary of film critics' Top 10 lists; I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets a Best Actor Oscar nod, but he’d face tough competition there, especially Adam Driver in Marriage Story, Joaquin Phoenix in Joker (Todd Phillips; review in our October 9, 2019 posting).  The film as a whole’s doing excellently with the CCAL—the RT survey yields 92% positive reviews, MC’s average score’s notably high at 89%—although viewers are just getting a chance to find it as it played in only 5 domestic theaters in its first 2 weeks in release, now expanded wide, explaining why it’s only taken in about $20 million so far despite rave reviews for general-audience-idol-Sandler (although we’ve never seen him in such an [attempted] Raging Bull [Scorsese, 1980]-mode before [not counting Howard's scenes of pathetic failure, not very De Niro-esque]).  Given the constant frantic activity of this film, which never slows down for its entire 135 min., I’ve chosen a Musical Metaphor of Christopher Cross’ “Ride Like the Wind” (on his 1980 self-named-album) found at AtM (1998 live performance featuring Michael McDonald; sang backup on the original recording) about an actual criminal who’s escaped hanging, galloping furiously toward assumed freedom across the border because it immediately reminded me of Howard’s various dilemmas, intensified by quickly-approaching-deadlines: “And I’ve got such a long way to go To make it to the border of Mexico […] Never was the kind to do as I was told Gonna ride like the wind before I get old […] It is the night My body’s weak I’m on the run No time to sleep.”  Howard’s ordeal is now at rest, though.

            Stars Wars: Episode IX—The Rise of Skywalker
                            (J.J. Abrams)   rated PG-13

As the central Star Wars saga comes to an end in this 9th episode we find Emperor Palpatine back from the supposed-dead, evil First Order honcho Kylo Ren in league with him, last-Jedi Rey (and her remaining Resistance colleagues) attempting to make sense of who she is, what to do next in a rousing, visually-overwhelming finale in this galaxy so long ago, so far away, so beloved for so long.

Here’s the trailer:

 If I have to tell you very much about the plot of … Skywalker, then maybe you’ve been living in something like what this movie calls the Unknown Regions (where ghosts of the Sith Lords [masters of the Dark Side of The Force] gather—although Google tracks my readership [results at the very end of each Two Guys posting], showing in 2019 I had a lot of response from what they call the Unknown Region, along with strong interest from Russia, so now I better understand how the content of my reviews must appeal to the evil spirits of the Sith [damn!] along with clueless Russian hackers who mistake what I’m writing as political propaganda [well, it probably does read that way for anyone who supports Trump, given my constant dismissals of himmore of that below, right before the incredibly-long-this-time Related Links section]) so feel free to read this summary if you want more details than I can fit in now about a complicated plot finally bringing closure (hard to believe, but we’ll have to trust Disney for now) to the lengthy saga of the Skywalkers.  Boiled down to basics, this story concerns Dark Side-consumed-leader-of-the-First Order (heirs to the Empire of previous episodes), Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), heading to the Unknown Regions to find Emperor Palpatine/Darth Sidious (Ian McDiarmid) surprisingly-alive*—more or less—plotting the return of a Sith-dominated-galaxy, but first Ren needs to kill Rey (Daisy Ridley), last of the Jedi Knights order.**

*You can watch this video (6:41, filled with spoilers) on how Palpatine survived his assumed death in Return of the Jedi (Richard Marquand, 1983) based on how clues are embedded in the previous movies as well as the various comics/novels, video games, etc. extending the central narrative chronology seemingly into infinity, enhanced further by this other video (8:52, spoiler-filled of course); plus, you can go here (8:31 video, spoilers as usual) for explanations on … Skywalker plot questions.  (Adding more backstory, I also found another source, plus this contrary one, arguing Palpatine used The Force to bring about Anakin Skywalker’s conception [although that wouldn’t make him the biological “father” in my opinion, so Anakin’d still be a Skywalker not a Palpatinehow this might link Anakin to Rey with the Emperor as a common ancestor isn’t something I'd prefer to explore, given their romantic attraction!]).  If this extraneous chatter intrigues you, each of the links I’ve noted offers considerably more of such options on the far right sides of those screens.

** If needed, you can put all these new events into a more complete context with the previous 8 Star Wars movies (along with the 2 stand-alones, Rogue One [Gareth Edwards, 2016; review in our January 4, 2017 posting]Solo [Ron Howard, 2018; review in our May 31, 2018 posting]) by watching this video (24:13) on the Skywalker family timeline (interrupted at about 14:00 by an ad); the details presented move at near-light-speed, though, so listen very carefully or pause frequently.

 There’s a hell of a lot of plot crammed into this movie’s 2 hr. 22 min. running time, so for now I’ll cut to the important parts (yet, this is the domain of spoilers so read with caution): In various locations and combinations Rey, former-Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), ace-pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), fierce-Wookie Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo)—aided by newcomers Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o), Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell)—and droids C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), BB-8 ultimately bring the fight to a revived, more-deadly-fleet of Palpatine-engineered Star Destroyers in the Unknown Regions lair of Exegol where (as in Return …) a last Jedi (Luke Skywalker [Mark Hamill] then, Rey now) makes a choice of joining the Emperor to save the lives of the outnumbered Rebellion/Resistance fleet in desperate-battle-mode or defying him (Luke’s overwhelmed by Palpatine’s Force-lightning but saved by the change of heart from his father, Darth Vader; Rey’s joined by Kylo Ren [also with a changed-heart due to Rey previously dueling, killing, then reviving him], helped along by a ghostly visit from his father, Han Solo [Harrison Ford])—no appearance by Anakin or Yoda this time, though—but they’re both overpowered by Palpatine, who draws out some of their life-forces to re-embody himself until Rey (with the spirits of all the previous Jedi strengthening her—plus she carries extra oomph from The Force when we learn she’s Palpatine’s granddaughter!), using the beams from the lightsabers of Luke and his twin-sister Leia (Carrie Fisher, brought back from real-life-death with unused footage from the first episode of this final trilogy)—Leia’s scenes also featured droid R2-D2 (I should note Lando Calrissian [Billy Dee Williams] shows up too)—to push back the Emperor’s Force-lightning, ultimately destroying him for good, bringing about the destruction of his entire Final Order army.  However, she dies from the expended effort only to be revived when Kylo transfers his reawakened life force into her as he dies in the process.  At the finale, Rey visits Luke’s old home on Tatooine, buries Luke and Leia’s lightsabers (she’s built her own by now), claims the name of Skywalker for herself.   ⇐ Minor characters, Death Star ruins, the Millennium Falcon and Luke’s old X-wing fighter, along with other shout-outs to the previous episodes keep popping up, weaving the full narrative together, attempting to satisfy the huge, diverse fandom (with too many demands from all the central/subsidiary stories to ever be fully answered), which may have generally worked with audiences but certainly didn’t win over the OCCU, where the RT response’s 54% positive reviews, the MC average score also 54% (which probably matters little to Disney accountants as this movie as of now has taken in $362.2 million domestically, $725.5 million globally, already making it #10 for the year worldwide, #7 at domestic venues with the income continuing to accumulate during its run into 2020—it also gives Disney 7 of the domestic Top 10 for 2019 [more details—some negative—here], 7 of the worldwide's Top 10).

 As a longtime-Star Wars-fan I enjoyed … Skywalker thoroughly but can easily see how someone unfamiliar with the previous material (not even counting all the extraneous stuff presented in other formats beyond the major movies) would be lost in the rapid plot points within the first hour—I could barely keep up myself, even after seeing all the previous trilogies’ episodes (Abrams just tried to cover too much here or should have pushed the studio to let him go for a full 3 hrs. as with Avengers: Endgame [Anthony and Joe Russo; review in our May 1, 2019  posting] where there was a similar flood of characters/plot strands to resolve; overall, I think … Endgame succeeded a bit better).  Yet, I do recommend … Skywalker (whatever your Star Wars I.Q), finding it more satisfying than my local film-critic-guru, Mick LaSalle (here I go, challenging his wisdom again in 2020), who had a lot of dismissive comments (“For about 75% of its running time, ‘The Rise of Skywalker’ is a disappointment.”) but at least we share some sense of accomplishment in the story’s closure (“The third installment of the new trilogy […] brings a feeling of completion, a warm sense of liking the characters, and a connection with ‘Star Wars’ past — both with the history of the series and the history of our watching the series”) so at least we agree there, which is not the case with Richard Jewell (reviewed just below) where LaSalle actively tops my rating by saying it tells a grand-scale American story of a kind this filmmaker is known for,” a bit of an overstatement in my opinion—at least he doesn’t claim it’s Clint’s best of all time, an honor I’d reserve for Unforgiven (1992), truly burying the long-honored-genre of the western (which Eastwood movies earlier helped perpetuate), even though there have been more current attempts to try to revive it again (some even say the Star Wars stories are like a "space western").  To conclude all this yapping, I’ll send off The Rise of Skywalker with  the Musical Metaphor of The Beatles “Across the Universe” (from their 1970 Let It Be album, another finish to a pop-culture-phenomenon) at as Rey darts all over a galaxy (feels like the whole universe at times), ultimately triumphing (come on, that’s not really a spoiler, is it?) because of theLimitless undying love which shines around me like a million suns [… so ultimately she can say] Nothing’s gonna change my world” as she evolves into full Jedi mode.  Even the “Jai Guru Deva” chant (seemingly about the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s own spiritual teacher) evokes thoughts of the most mystical aspects of the Jedi knights, a heritage Rey now has all to herself in a galaxy now cleansed of evil-empire-builders.

                              Richard Jewell (Clint Eastwood)   rated R

Based on the facts (but criticized for its portrayal of a reporter) of a security guard at the Atlanta 1996 Summer Olympics, first called a hero for spotting a bomb, helping clear the area so causalities were somewhat limited, then targeted by the FBI as the bomber.  Spoiler protocol used below, but Internet searches easily provide all needed details.

Here’s the trailer:

 On July 27, 1996 the world changed forever for Georgia wannabe-cop, Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser), working as a security guard at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta where he found a suspicious backpack, called in the bomb squad (correctly, as it contained 3 pipe bombs; he didn’t know about a 911 call warning of an explosion within the next half-hour), helped clear the area as much as possible before the detonation killed 1 (news cameraman also died of a heart attack), injured 111, was initially hailed as a hero, then became the subject of an FBI investigation because he fit the profile of a loner (Jewell was 33, overweight, didn’t have many friends, had been fired from a couple of law-enforcement jobs for overzealous actions, lived with mother “Bobi” Jewell [Kathy Bates]) looking for attention.  This movie focuses on those eventful months in his life with the principal characters—Richard, Bobi, lawyer Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), all based on the actual people in this drama,* although the FBI agent in charge, Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), is a composite of several G-men.  If you want to know more about Jewell’s actual situation, here’s the 1997 Vanity Fair article the script was based on (along with the book by Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwen, The Suspect [2019]), plus a 2002 Jewell interview on CBS’ 60 Minutes (12:01).  Once Scruggs published her info, supposed-hero-Jewell was seen as the target of an FBI investigation (although never arrested nor charged) when all hell broke loose for the now-hounded-“terrorist” with media constantly camped outside his small apartment, personal possessions (he legally owned a lot of guns) carted away as evidence, his life now in a shambles, with an angry defense to all involved on Jewell’s behalf by lawyer Bryant.

*Scruggs’ depiction’s generated extensive controversy, not only because she’s shown as a ruthless reporter but also in a key scene she clearly indicates she’s open to sex with Shaw for a crucial tip on the story (Jewell as suspect, changing public perception of his motives), disputed by many who knew her, especially because she's dead (2001, age 42, overdose of prescription pain pills), unable to defend herself (Jewell’s also dead—2007, age 44, heart failure—but it’s clear this story is intended to help rehab his legacy, while denigrating hers for plot-point-reasons)Wilde claims she understood Scruggs and “Shaw” were already lovers so their dialogue was banter, not proposition (I guess Pres. Trump would tweet “NO QUID PRO QUO!”) while ... Jewell defenders note the end credits (as with just about any such fictionalization) say: “The film is based on actual historical events.  Dialogue and certain events and characters contained in the film were created for the purposes of dramatization.”  Eastwood’s asked about this in a short interview (2:24), gives a muddled reply; at least the rest of this cinematic version of the events proves factual (10:05 video).

 ⇒88 days after Jewell’s ordeal began, with pressure on the FBI to either charge or back off, he was notified as no longer being a suspect (even Scruggs changed her previously-determined-mind about his guilt), although accusations continued to haunt him for years until 2005 when Eric Rudolph was arrested, confessed to the bombing.⇐  (Understanding you’d still find spoilers, you can go here for a much-more-detailed-accounting of the plot.)  While Eastwood intended this as an exoneration (although very long after the fact) for Jewell, its presence in theaters has largely been ignored, making only about $16.1 million domestically after being out for 3 weeks, an extremely poor showing for an Eastwood release, not helped much by mediocre responses from the CCAL, with an RT survey of 73% positive reviews, an MC average score of 69% as attention to the controversy about Scruggs (see the footnote just above; despite Wilde’s protests about her understanding of that crucial scene—and her complaint Hamm’s character hasn’t been similarly criticized for giving out such a secret just for his carnal pleasure—I don’t think there’s any doubt in their interaction what she’s offering in exchange for this crucial info [despite his initial response she won’t be able to “fuck” it out of him], agree it adds “slut” to the previous “bitch” depiction of Scruggs) seems to have soured the responses of some who’ve analyzed this movie (others complain Eastwood’s offering Trump support here in his negative portrayal of the FBI and the media, but from what I understand about the facts of the situation they all deserved such chastisement, so I don’t think this is a valid line of criticism [even if I generally don’t care for Clint’s politics as opposed to his talent as a director]).  I’m bothered as well by the unnecessary villainization of Kathy Scruggs (based on reports I’ve read by her former colleagues), but based just on what I see on screen I must admit this movie as a whole is appropriately dramatic, well acted by all, a clear vindication of Jewell, so I’ll take my concern about Scruggs’ characterization here into account of my response but still find this to be effective cinema, with Scruggs and Shaw as needed antagonists in this context for the unjustified humiliation of Jewell, the primary dramatic thrust of the narrative.  Wrapping up with my Musical Metaphor, I’ll go a bit afield to use The Beatles’ “You Won’t See Me” (from their 1965 album Rubber Soul) at, as “sung” by Richard (Jewell, not Starkey [Ringo Starr]), transformed from the original romance-gone-wrong-song, as he tells the world: “I will lose my mind If you won’t see me [as I truly am, not as a murderer …] Time after time You refuse to even listen […] Though the days are few, they’re filled with tears And since I lost [my privacy, my innocence, my identity] it feels like years.”  This man’s life was unnecessarily soaked in tragedy with the only consolations being stories like this to sort of right the wrongs against him, the ultimate result being the real criminal is imprisoned for life.

                   Little Women [2019] (Greta Gerwig)   rated PG

Based (as many adaptations have been) on Louisa May Alcott’s classic 19th-century-novel about the U.S. Civil War-era March family—mostly a mother, 4 daughters, their rich aunt—plus important equally-rich-neighbors, we follow the fortunes of these young women as they search, sometimes in difficult measure, for meaning in their 4 lives.

Here’s the trailer:

 (More full disclosure: I’ve never read the novel [published in 2 volumes, 1868, ’69, merged for the 1880 version]—semi-autobiographical about Alcott, her 3 sisters, from which this movie’s adapted—nor seen any of the multiple cinematic/TV adaptations, although I’ve watched the musical play [book Allan Knee, music Jason Howland, lyrics Mindi Dickstein; Broadway in 2005] twice [don’t ask!] in local SF-area-little theatres [although not-once would’ve been plenty, as I made little sense of the narrative nor how sung aspects intended to enhance it.]  Thus, as one of the few in the Western world to know little about the Marches, I’d probably benefit from some “womansplaining” about its virtues [in the meantime, I’ll admit—as Paul Simon says in "I Know What I Know," from his 1986 Graceland album—“Who am I to blow against the wind?”] so if anyone cares to take me to task in the Comments area at this posting’s end [as has already been done generically in this NY Times article], please do.)  For the benefit of anyone else as Little Women-deprived as I’ve been, I’ll note some of my chatter below as spoilers, but full details of the young adult lives of the March sisters are likely well-known enough for my “revelations” to be no surprise to those interested in this latest interpretation of Alcott’s famous work.  If you do need more backstory, consult this extensive novel summary (and its many adaptations), this extensive, well-researched visual essay ([24:42] comparing American cinematic adaptations from 1933 [George Cukor], 1949 [Mervyn LeRoy], 1994 [Gillian Armstrong], 2019—but,  spoilers), and a short exploration (5:24) of differences between the novel and this most-recent on-screen-approach, with the chief one how Gerwig shuffles scenes from 2 time periods in the characters’ lives allowing us to see past informing present, yet forcing our attention as events often parallel to the point it’s not always clear when something’s happening, especially because these actors don’t look all that different in the mere 7-year-span separating their various actions; so, in an effort to streamline my comments I’ll pack everything into respective chronological chunks: Mid-1860s (Not sure exactly when these events in Concord, MA occur, but the Civil War’s in progress, family father Mr. March’s [Bob Odenkirk] off in combat.)—Mother Marmee March (Laura Dern) has quite a brood: Josephine “Jo” (Saoirse Ronan) wants to be a writer, creates plays for her sisters to perform, works on a novel, is close friends with nearby-rich-neighbor Theodore “Laurie” Laurence (Timothée Chalamet); Margaret “Meg” (Emma Watson) aspires to be a stage actor, becomes interested in Laurie’s tutor, John Brooke (James Norton); Amy’s (Florence Pugh) a talented painter, the favorite of rich, opinionated Aunt March (Meryl Streep); youngest Elizabeth “Beth” (Eliza Scanlen) yearns to sharpen her piano skills (becomes possible when a marvelous instrument’s donated by Laurie’s grandfather [Chris Cooper], sadly knowing he’ll never hear it played again by his deceased daughter), gets scarlet fever then recovers.

 These siblings share a gracious manner (without the bickering my wise wife, Nina, expected, based on her upbringing with 4 sisters), except when Amy gets so mad at Jo she burns that novel-in-progress but all’s forgiven when Amy falls into an ice-pond requiring rescue by Jo and Laurie; Jo has her own anger at teacher Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel), who dares to offer constructive-critique of her writing.  Laurie’s love for Jo’s rejected as she chooses independence so he turns to Amy, but she refuses to be second-choice; Meg marries John.  7 Years Later—Jo’s in NYC, gets a short story accepted after severe editing by publisher Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts) but returns home when Beth’s ill again; Amy turns down a rich suitor, much to Aunt March’s chagrin. Beth dies; Amy changes her mind about Laurie, marries him (Jo also reconsidered but kept quiet, supports Amy’s happiness); Jo begins a novel about her family which Dashwood rejects but relents when his daughters read the draft, love it; Aunt March leaves her mansion to Amy and Laurie, Jo turns it into a school; Jo finally admits her attraction to Friedrich (mutual), but there’s no clarity about marriage; Jo drives a hard bargain for the publication of her novel when Dashwood insists the main female character get married for audience delight (happens in the actual novel, though Alcott stayed single), the book we see as Little Women by L.M.A., cleverly implying (I guess) a pen-name for Jo, even as actual Louisa created Jo as her fictional identity.⇐   Acting’s uniformly solid (Ronan’s up for Golden Globes’ Best Actress-Motion Picture Drama), the quality cast was a main interest for me along with great CCAL support (RT 95% positive reviews, MC a very-high-for-them 91% average score), yet I can’t say it intrigued me too much.  I realize Gerwig’s presenting these women as stronger than the society of their time (Aunt March insists Amy must marry rich for a better life, is single herself only because she’s already rich)—certainly a commendable intention—but I’ve read Alcott intended that sort of message herself, just in a less-than-direct-manner, and in my (clueless male) opinion only Jo and Amy really seem determined to be more than auxiliary players, with Meg a vague presence, Beth a quiet victim of circumstances, Marmee a devoted mother in Virgin Mary-mold (say what you like about my other opinions, but at least Sarah Blackwood in The New Yorker agrees with me here [thanks to frequent-screening-pal Michaele O’Leary-Reiff for this; yet, she's seen the movie again, likes it more, now not as agreeable with this article]), Aunt March verifying patriarchy of the time.  Audiences are much more receptive than me, though, domestic response at $29.2 million during its debut release ($35.5 total globally), so for whatever good Little Women does to enhance respect for all women, using past to inform present, I wish it well but can’t say it moved me too much with its eventual emphasis on marriage as fulfilling a woman’s destiny (except Jo?), so I’ll close with a Musical Metaphor, Joni Mitchell’s “Chelsea Morning” (from her 1969 album Clouds), at, as I understand the March sisters (especially Jo, living for a time in NYC, as Mitchell did for this song’s inspiration) wanting to “put on the day […] talk in present tenses” (as well as a plea to the song's lover being addressed, “If only you will stay”).
 And, as if I haven’t already dumped enough stuff on you in this New Year barrage of commentary, now that we’re getting into the thick of awards season (Golden Globes will be awarded on Jan. 5, 2020; Oscar nominations are due on Jan. 13 in preparation for their Feb. 9 awards broadcast; just below in Related Links you’ll find tallies from Metacritic of which 2019 releases have done the best so far in terms of awards/nominations scored along with a critical consensus based on various end-of-the-year “top” lists [mine won’t arrive for awhile as some likely contenders aren’t yet available to me]) let me note these summaries from cinema-industry-bible Variety (although The Hollywood Reporter would surely disagree with that designation), first the biggest box-office hits and flops of 2019 (in a year where the overall-ticket-income was off notably from 2018), then their opinion of the best 10 films of the decade (now that we’ve reached that notable endpoint, at least for those who count from a 0 rather than others [like me] who start with a 1 then see a year such as 2020 as being the 10th of the decade) with Owen Gleiberman picking The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010), Peter Debruge choosing The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)—I haven’t pondered such a momentous ranking yet (and wouldn’t until 2020’s passed), but so far my choices would have to be from the only 2 films since 2011 to which I've given 5 stars, Fences ( Denzel Washington, 2016; reviews in our January 4, 2017 and January 12, 2017 postings) or Loving Vincent (Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, 2017; review in our October 26, 2017 posting).  Of course, any sort of “best” film is not only subjective in the mind of the critic as there are no objective criteria to judge such an honor but it's also relative, depending on how “best” is defined (I still go with Citizen Kane [Orson Welles, 1941] as the ultimate in cinematic art), as explored in this article from the aforementioned-industry-bible-contender, The Hollywood Reporter (thanks to my friend and professional film critic, Barry Caine [unlike me who’s just another big-mouthed-blogger that’s never been paid a dime for pushing my opinions on the world at large—except when I was teaching, but none of those film-based-academic-articles I wrote would likely find their way into the Library of Congress archives of significant film criticism anyway, although you can access some of them at my personal website, noted at almost the very end of this posting]).  Finally (hold your applause), what’s not been “best” for me these last 3 years (despite his wife’s “Be Best” campaign where she ironically advocates an end to bullying) is the current occupant of the White House, so to insure I start this blog off in a proper manner for 2020 I’ll pass on another gem from Mr. Caine (rather than Mr. Kane), a parody of Donald Trump (and others) singing an “alternative facts”-version of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” (here’s the original if you need a refresher), a not-subtle-at-all-reminder of my left-coast-bias, which you’ll surely encounter more of as our new year marches blissfully into the realms of impeachment.
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
We encourage you to visit the summary of Two Guys reviews for our past posts.*  Overall notations for this blog—including Internet formatting craziness beyond our control—may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage If you’d like to Like us on Facebook please visit our Facebook page. We appreciate your support whenever and however you can offer it!

*A Google software glitch causes every Two Guys posting prior to August 26, 2016 to have an inaccurate (dead) link to this Summary page; from then forward, though, this link is accurate.

AND … at least until the Oscars for 2019’s releases have been awarded on Sunday, February 9, 2020 we’re also going to include reminders in each posting of very informative links where you can get updated tallies of which 2019 films have been nominated for and/or received various awards 
and which ones made various individual critic’s Top 10 lists.  You may find the diversity among the various awards competitions and the various critics hard to reconcile at times—not to mention the often-significant-gap between critics’ choices and competitive-award-winners (which pales when compared to the even-more-noticeable-gap between specific award winners and big box-office-grosses you might want to monitor here)—but as that less-than-enthusiastic-patron-of-the-arts, Plato, noted in The Symposium (385-380 BC)—roughly translated, depending on how accurate you wish the actual quote to be—“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” so your choices for success are as valid as any of these others, especially if you offer some rationale for your decisions (unlike many of the awards voters who simply fill out ballots, sometimes for films they’ve never seen).

To save you a little time scrolling through the “various awards” list above, here are the 
current Golden Globe nominees for films and TV from 2019. 

Here’s more information about The Two Popes: (very limited official site) (24:19 interview with director Fernando Meirelles, scriptwriter Anthony McCarten, and actors Juan Minujin, Jonathan Pryce--producers 
Dan Lin, Jonathan Eirich, Tracy Seaward are also briefly introduced [audio quality a bit muffled 
after the introductions]) and (8:34 varied conversations with actors Anthony Hopkins and Pryce)

Here’s more information about Uncut Gems: (another sparse official site) (37:39 interview with directors/
co-screenwriters [with Ronald Bronstein] Josh and Benny Safdie and actor Adam Sandler)

Here’s more information about The Rise of Skywalker: 
(Robert Morast article in the San Francisco Chronicle about how the sadness of saying 
goodbye to such a cultural talisman as the Star Wars series can lead to displaced anger)

Here’s more information about Richard Jewell: (12:04 interview with director Clint 
Eastwood and actors Paul Walter Hauser, Kathy Bates, Sam Rockwell, Jon Hamm)

Here’s more information about Little Women: (13:38 scene breakdown—the March 
family meets the Laurence family—with director Greta Gerwig and actors Saoirse 
Ronan, Timothée Chalamet, Laura Dern [ads interrupt at about 4:30, 9:20])

Please note that to Post a Comment below about our reviews you need to have either a Google account (which you can easily get at if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.  You can also leave comments at our Facebook page, although you may have to somehow connect with us at that site in order to do it (most FB procedures are still a bit of a mystery to us old farts).

If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my email address of if you truly have too much time on your hands you might want to explore some even-longer-and-more-obtuse-than-my-film-reviews—if that even seems possible—academic articles about various cinematic topics at my website,, which could really give you something to talk to me about.)

If we did talk, though, you’d easily see how my early-70s-age informs my references, Musical Metaphors, etc. in these reviews because I’m clearly a guy of the later 20th century, not so much the contemporary world.  I’ve come to accept my ongoing situation, though, realizing we all (if fate allows) keep getting older, we just have to embrace it, as Joni Mitchell did so well in "The Circle Game," offering sage advice even when she was quite young herself.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.  But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.
Finally, for the data-oriented among you, Google stats say over the past month (which they seem to measure from right now back 30 days) the total unique hits at this site were 30,186 (as always, we thank all of you for your support with our hopes you’ll continue to be regular readers); below is a snapshot of where and by what means those responses have come from within the previous week:

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